Cell Phones are Computers – The Evolution of Technology

For most people, the word “computer” conjures up images of a traditional desktop computer and monitor, or perhaps a laptop or even a netbook. Few, if any, would associate the word with their cellular phone. However, it is undeniable that modern cell phones are, more and more, performing tasks for which we would ordinarily use our computers. We can check our email, surf the web, stream music and videos, and download software, all with a little device that fits in our pocket.

Recently, in United States v. Kramer, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 2367 (8th Cir. 2011), the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that, under the definition provided by 18 U.S.C. § 1030(e)(1), even a cell phone used only to make phone calls and send text messages constitutes a computer. This statute defines a computer as a device which “performs logical, arithmetic, or storage functions.” The Eighth Circuit determined that a cell phone performs logical, arithmetic, or storage functions “each time an electronic processor performs any task—from powering on, to receiving keypad input, to displaying information.” According to the court, even the most basic function of a cell phone—placing a phone call (I forgot they could do that!)—requires the phone’s processor to perform logical, arithmetic and storage functions. Therefore, even cell phones without internet access and web browsers constitute computers under this statute.

The implications of this decision are far-reaching. First, 18 U.S.C. § 1030, the “Fraud and related activity in connection with computers” section of the Federal Crimes Code, now applies to fraudulent access and usage of cell phones. Additionally, as was the case for Neil Scott Kramer, defendants may face a sentencing enhancement for “use of a computer” to facilitate the commission of certain crimes. Further, this could open the door to new rules regarding searches and seizures of cell phones, and could broaden laws relating to computer hacking and internet crimes. It remains to be seen whether other courts, including the United States Supreme Court, will agree with the Eighth Circuit’s analysis.

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