Computer Hacking and “property”

Software hacking and “property”

Clive Elliot QC draws attention to a New Zealand Court of Appeal decision ruling that downloading data from a computer does not constitute dishonestly obtaining property.

Watchorn was an employee of TAG. He downloaded to his personal computer files containing geophysical data relating to oil and gas exploration TAG had engaged in. The files were downloaded between 4:00pm and 9:30pm. The next day he went on holiday to Canada where amongst other things he met with officers from one of TAG’s competitors; the end result being he resigned from TAG on his return to start work for the competitor.

Watchorn was convicted in the District Court on 3 counts of accessing a computer system and thereby dishonestly obtaining property contrary to s 249 of the Crimes Act.

As the data downloaded was not “property”, the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions. The Court also refused to substitute convictions for dishonestly obtaining a benefit as the Crown had not sought to articulate what the “benefit” was. The Court did, however, accept the benefit could be a non-pecuniary advantage.

It might be possible to fit Watchorn’s actions within the scope of s 247H of the Crimes Act 1958 (Vic), but the other “serious computer offences” seem like a stretch[1] and, on the Court of Appeal`s approach the “theft” provisions shouldn’t apply.

Watchorn v R [2014] NZCA 493


  1. Is it, e.g. “impairment of reliability, security or operation of data”?  ?
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