'Hacking' conviction voided by court Law doesn't apply to workers given access, judges say

January 23, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The state's highest court has overturned the conviction of a computer specialist because Maryland's law against "hacking" dTC does not apply to workers who have been freely given computer privileges by their employers, even if they abuse those privileges.

Yesterday's reversal was a victory for Terry Dewain Briggs, 26, a computer programmer who was convicted by an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury in 1996 of gaining unauthorized access to a computer, which is called hacking.

Hacking is a misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison in Maryland. Briggs, who has moved to Georgia from Washington, and could not be reached last night, was sentenced to two days in jail and 150 hours of community service.

He also settled out of court a civil suit filed by his employers alleging that he had sabotaged their computer network just before he quit in a contract dispute.

Gary E. Bair, chief of criminal appeals in the attorney general's office, said officials will review the law and the Court of Appeals ruling and decide whether to ask lawmakers to expand Maryland's statute.

"If you want a law that says if you are an employee and you use your computer in a way that your employer finds objectionable, then that is what your law should say," said Bradley A. Thomas, a Washington lawyer who represented Briggs.

The federal government and many states make it a crime for people to exceed their authorized computer access or to tamper with a computer system to which they have access.

The National Institute of Justice, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, has noted that computer sabotage by insiders is another form of white-collar crime. Experts in the field have written that computer abuse by employees and former employees is at least as serious as sabotage by outsiders.

Briggs said he did not tamper with the system he maintained for the Scarborough Group, a securities investment company in Annapolis. He contended that as the person in charge of the computer system, he had added security and had trouble

recalling passwords.

Just after Briggs resigned in July 1995, Scarborough discovered it was locked out of many of its own files. The files were made inaccessible to others with passwords known only to Briggs, according to trial testimony.

Scarborough contended that Briggs changed the passwords two days before his contract dispute and put them into a directory, called "HAHAHEHE," to which nobody else in the firm had access.

"He has crippled the company's computer system," said company lawyers, who added that Scarborough needed its system to manage $600 million in investments.

"We underwent some pains because of this," Cliff Woodward, Scarborough's manager of accounting and human resources, said yesterday.

Many other companies are also at the mercy of their computer chiefs, he said.

"We put a lot of faith into them. We try to pay them as best we can and keep them happy," Woodward said.

Since the dispute with Briggs, he said "everything is backed up and double backed up. We can't take a chance of having this mishap happening again."

That is what companies should do, Thomas said. "The recourse for employers is to have checks and balances," he said.

Pub Date: 1/23/98

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