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The Computer Misuse Act - necessary updates?

The Computer Misuse Act - necessary updates?

Legal professionals and observers alike will have noted a decided trend in recent years. Since the now-ubiquitous use of the internet as a platform for every conceivable means of information sharing – from teen chatrooms devoted to the merits of One Direction to 24-hour secure access off-site storage for confidential documents – legislation has had to run to keep pace with the rate of change.

Since the wheels of the law are not noted for their cracking pace, there is inevitably a lag as the legislature grapples with how best to tackle criminal activity carried out online. One need only look at Twitter’s infamous reputation as a platform for criminal abuse to witness both the need for effective legislation, and the difficulty of implementing it.

Here in the UK, proposed updates to the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (and we should pause for a moment to consider how the ways in which computers can be ‘misused’ have changed in the intervening years) are raising concerns.

Under the updates, considerably harsher sentences (under the current Act, capped at 10 years) will be available to those convicted of ‘cyber-crime’, such as hackers involved in industrial espionage (which, as the Guardian reports, is believed to be ‘a growing menace affecting UK businesses’).

Those who are deemed to have used computers – or, more accurately, the internet – to compromise national security, the national economy or the environment could now potentially face life sentences.

A life term may seem a reasonable response to terrorist activity – but there are concerns that the measures are too draconian, and furthermore that the law could be misused to target legitimate whistle-blowers.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights reported on the proposed changes, raising concerns as to the clarity and exactitude of the legislation: ‘Legal certainty requires that criminal offences are precisely defined so that individuals know how to avoid such sanctions. Vagueness is not permissible in the definition of criminal offences.’

Open Rights Group director Jim Killock echoes these concerns, warning the proposed legislation was too vaguely outlined, and calling for any increased penalties under the Computer Misuse Act to be matched with additional protections, such as the public interest defence.

Whether or not the proposed changes come into practice, it becomes increasingly clear that the legal profession must keep pace, able to respond to the changing nature of litigation. As government continues to grapple with how best to legislate against cyber-crime, lawyers must grapple with the changing nature of evidence and the ways in which litigation is carried out. The proposed changes demonstrate once again that close working with professional litigation support partners such as Legastat is a key means of ensuring firms and chambers have the necessary legal tech to handle litigation with a strong IT/tech focus – not least when there’s the prospect of a full-life tariff to consider.