Court permits broad view of computer privacy

October 08, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Computer files of private businesses, government agencies and universities appeared to gain broad new privacy protection yesterday as the Supreme Court refused to review the first case on data bank piracy.

Without comment, the court turned aside an appeal by Robert T. Morris of Cambridge, Mass., the onetime Cornell University computer whiz who became the first individual convicted of the federal crime of computer fraud.

Morris, who said that he meant to do no harm in 1988 when he sent a computer "worm" through electronic networks nationwide, causing many systems to "crash," had urged the court to limit the scope of the 1986 law he broke.

A lower federal court had ruled last March that the law is violated if an individual intentionally gained unauthorized access to someone else's computer -- even if no harm was intended.

Without the need for proof of intentional damage, computer fraud will be considerably easier to prove, and thus more privacy would appear to be assured for files and networks.

The 1986 law makes it a crime to gain access to another's computer if $1,000 or more of loss results.

The justices acted on the Morris case on the first day of their new term.

In one of the most significant of the new business cases that reached the court during its summer recess, the justices agreed to rule on the power of states to impose taxes on out-of-state companies that send salespersons into that state to solicit customers.

A 1959 federal law bars states, counties and cities from taxing an out-of-state firm if it merely solicits sales in that state.

In the case the justices will consider, the Chicago-based chewing gum company, William Wrigley Jr. Co., has been found to be protected from income taxes in Wisconsin even though its sales agents in that state do considerably more than solicit customers to buy gum. The agents also maintain displays, replace stale gum and keep track of customers' stocks of gum. The state supreme court said those activities are all part of soliciting customers and keeping their good will, and thus Wisconsin could not tax Wrigley.

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