Computer hackers violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. NBC News states that this 1986 law makes any unauthorized access to a computer network a federal offense with severe consequences.
Many experts consider the CFAA to be out of date and overly harsh in its punishments. It was created to prevent hackers from breaking into major networks with the intent to do damage. Today, however, there are many cyber protesters of free access to information who are convicted using the CFAA. Scientific American reports that Internet activist Aaron Swartz hung himself as he was facing 35 years in prison for downloading public information from a site to which he already had a subscription.