As of 3 May 2015 a new offence under the Computer Misuse Act will come into existence through amendments made by the Serious Crime Act 2015.

Under the new provisions an offence will be committed if a person does any unauthorised act in relation to a computer, which the person knows at the “time of doing the act” is unauthorised and that act causes or creates a significant risk of “serious damage of a material kind” and the person intends to cause such damage or is “reckless as to whether it is caused”.

A person guilty of an offence is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years, or to a fine, or to both, but if the act causes or creates a significant risk of (a) serious damage to human welfare or (b) serious damage to national security, the sentence can be increased to life imprisonment, a fine or both.

Under the Computer Misuse Act that previously applied, the maximum punishment that could be imposed for the most serious computer hacking offences was a 10 year jail sentence and/or a fine. The new aggravated offence reflects the legislature’s recognition of the serious threat of cyber-attacks on the UK economy, however it is somewhat doubtful whether a longer sentence will deter such attacks.

In order to establish the most serious offence resulting in a life sentence, it would have to be proved that:

  1. The defendant committed an unauthorised act in relation to a computer;
  2. The defendant knew at the time of doing the act that it was unauthorised;
  3. The act caused a significant risk of serious damage of a material kind.

Damage of a ‘material kind’ is defined under subsection 3ZA(2) as damage done to eitherhuman welfare, the environment, the economy or the national security of any country.

Damage to human welfare is said to have established if the offenders unauthorised actions cause loss to human life, human illness or injury, disruption of a supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel, disruption of a system of communication, disruption of facilities for transport, or disruption of services relating to health.

A comprehensive guide to the changes can be found here (PDF).