Checking Facebook At Work Might Be Illegal

Wait, how do we delete this browser history? (Asking for a friend.)

If you’re checking Facebook (or reading this post) at work, and your employer’s computer use policies don’t allow such activity, you might be breaking the law. The case for this isn’t settled, but the worrisome news comes from Stephanie Greene and Christine Neylon O’Brien, business law professors at Boston College who published a paper in the American Business Law Journal warning that a broad interpretation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) could criminalize any violations of an employer’s computer policy — violations ranging from using your work computer to commit actual crimes to using your work computer to “poke” people on Facebook (which is just a social crime, as far as we know.) 

The professors describe how a law initially passed to prevent hacking could be interpreted, in an age where technology often moves faster than the legal system, to make illegal all violations of employer’s computer use policy:

The sections of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA or “Act”) at issue prohibit accessing computers “without authorization” or “exceeding authorized access.” While this language was largely intended to prohibit both external and internal hacking, both employers and prosecutors have argued, and some courts have agreed, that this language also prohibits conduct such as violating a computer use policy or other employment agreement.

They say that decisions from several circuit courts over the years seemed to buy into the broad interpretation of the CFAA. Not to worry though, when an employer alleged in a civil suit that an employee had violated the CFAA by checking Facebook and sending personal email, the claim was dismissed.

Even more fortunately, Green and O’Brien say, the Ninth Circuit court has warned about the unintended repercussions of a broader reading (citing that civil case) and interpreted the law on more narrow grounds. Others seem to be following suit.

But if you’re feeling relief just now, it’s probably our duty to remind you that you’d only be (maybe) breaking the law if your employer already bans Facebooking, Gchatting, online Christmas shopping and whatever else in their employee policy. So even if it’s not technically illegal, it’s probably not advisable for you to do these things, and you should really get back to wor— oh look an adorable video of a cat acting as a school crossing guard! Haha! It’s funny because it is a cat! But it is also a crossing guard! That’s a job usually reserved for humans! You have to see this! Sorry, what were we talking about?