Yes, Zoombombing is a crime in Pennsylvania, as you probably guessed. In the “Before Time,” few of us had ever heard of Zoom, let alone Zoombombing, but now everyone knows this term for outsiders hijacking and disrupting a meeting on the teleconference platform Zoom.
So many people have been asking me about the possible penalties for Zoombombing that I decided it was time to write a blog post on the topic.
Obviously, there is not a statute under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code called “Zoombombing,” but the act of disrupting an online teleconference is covered by the crime of Unlawful Use of Computer pursuant to Section 7611 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code. Unlawful Use of a Computer is a third-degree felony with a maximum penalty of 42 to 84 months of incarceration and a fine of up to $15,000. The sentencing guidelines for Unlawful Use of a Computer are harsher than they are for most other third-degree felonies. The standard range for sentencing is a period of incarceration ranging from six to 14 months if the defendant has no prior record. Thus, probation for a first-time offender would be a mitigated range sentence. Defendants with a prior record could face even more time in county jail or state prison.
In addition to possible jail time, a Zoombomber’s sentence could also include a ban on the use of the Internet while he is on parole or lucky enough to get probation. Being cut off from the Internet in the modern world has a much bigger impact than the usual ban on bars and alcohol consumption, which are standard conditions for anyone on probation or parole.
It is not just the person who disrupts a Zoom meeting who could be charged. For example, a student who gives out the password for an online class to a friend for the purpose of Zoombombing can also be charged with Unlawful Use of a Computer. The penalties would be the same for the guy who gives out the password as they would be for the friend who joins the class and starts heckling the professor.
Students who engage in Zoombombing do not just need to worry about criminal consequences, but also conduct discipline from their school. It will be interesting to see how the offices of student conduct at various universities deal with this problem. I would imagine that students engaged in Zoombombing a class at another school will still be disciplined by their own school.
Based on experience, it is safe to assume that police, prosecutors and judges will take into account the facts of each case Zoombombing case. For example, a person who disrupts an elementary school class by showing porn clips is going to faces other serious charges in addition to Unlawful Use of a Computer, and could expect very little mercy from the criminal justice system. By contrast, a Zoombomber who disrupts an adult Zoom cocktail party with porn clips is not going to be placed in the same category as a Zoombomber with child victims in an educational setting.
Although outcomes for individual defendants will be fact-specific, I expect law enforcement and judges to take a generalized hard stance on Zoombombing. This is because everyone is suffering as a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic, yet it is hard to fight back like we could against a human enemy in a conventional war. Thus, a tangible target for society’s wrath will be those who use the changed conditions of the Pandemic to harm or inconvenience others. And the police will be able to make catching Zoombombers a priority, given the massive reduction in crime during the lock-down.
With so much pent-up anger directed at Zoombombers, anyone suspected of or charged with Unlawful Use of a Computer is going to need a good criminal defense lawyer in order to avoid conviction or at the very least lessen the penalties.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University.