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Can you destroy the contents on your work computer’s hard drive? One court says no.

Credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=584

You work at a company and decide to jump to a competing company.  Before letting your employer know that you are leaving, you change out the hard drive on your work computer (and destroy it) and put a new hard drive in.

Is that unlawful?  One court says yes.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (the “CFAA”) prevents the unauthorized access to computers.  What a lot of people know, is that includes access exceeding your authority.  For instance, if you have permission to access certain information on a server and decide to access information you are not permitted to access, you can be held in violation of the CFAA.

This was kind of the situation for a consultant at Deloitte & Touche.  From news reports (via TechDirt.com), the consultant was leaving Deloitte and Touche and decided he needed to protect personal information (and possibly information related to leaving for a competitor and recruiting other employees to do so) from Deloitte’s hands.  So, he did the safest thing in that regard and switched out the hard drive and destroyed the old one.

The consultant did not have permission to do this and thus exceeded his authority.  As such, the consultant’s actions under the CFAA (which has been interpreted very broadly) could be deemed a violation of the Act.

There are some good lessons coming out of this case.  For employers, it is to have a clear access policy for employees.  Then, if they exceed that authority, you can hold them accountable.  For employees, it is to understand what your authority is regarding a work computer (whether it is oral or in writing) and be careful not to exceed that authority – especially if you are about to take actions that would upset your employer (like leaving for a competitor and recruiting others to do so).

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