Court upholds police radio hacker’s conviction under Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

In the case of U.S. v. Mitra, The Seventh Circuit has upheld the defendant’s conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. ยง 1030, for using a powerful radio transmitter and computer hardware to intentionally interfere with a computerized radio “trunking system” that coordinated police radio and other emergency communications.

Rajib Mitra, already a convicted hacker, used radio hardware and computer gear to send out a powerful signal that blanketed all of the communication towers in Madison, Wisconsin used by the police, fire, ambulance and other emergency personnel. This blanketing prevented users of the city’s communications system from accessing the “control” channel, this disabling the entire communication network based on a “trunking system” that linked the entire city’s emergency personnel.

Mitra was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (the “Act”), and went to trial in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. A jury convicted him of two counts of intentional interference with computer-related systems used in interstate commerce. Mitra sought review of his conviction.

On appeal, the court held that even though the Act does not specifically address radio trunking systems, interference with such technology is included in the Act’s scope. Mitra had argued that Congress could not have intended such broad coverage, because the Act was drafted before trunking systems were brought to market.

The court rejected this argument, noting legislators “know that complexity is endemic in the modern world and that each passing year sees new developments.” Therefore, Congress can craft legislation in a general manner that will cover emerging technologies. Furthermore, and apparently dispensing with the notion of legislative intent, the court stated that “what Congress would have done about trunking systems, had they been present to the mind of any Senator or Representative, is neither here nor there.”

Mitra next argued that the statute could not rightfully prohibit his conduct, because the radio signals he sent did not cross state lines, and thus his actions did not involve interstate commerce. The court rejected this argument as well. It noted that although the system Mitra used was more powerful than the transmitter on the Huygens spacecraft that recently beamed back images from Saturn, the crucial inquiry was not whether Mitra acted in interstate commerce, but whether the affected computers and computerized systems were used in interstate commerce.

Having found the requirements of the Act met, the court upheld Mitra’s conviction. The question of whether his 96-month prison sentence was proper in light of the recent Booker decision was sent back to the district court for further proceedings.

U.S. v. Mitra, 2005 U.S. App. LEXIS 6717 (7th Cir., April 18, 2005).