Damage to the hardware of a computer will impose tort liability under the same principles of law as would apply if it were a typewriter or a car or any other tangible piece of property. Intentionally damaging software can also give rise to civil liability. Theft of computer hardware or software constitutes the tort of conversion.
Negligent use of a computer is a tort. If someone knows that a computer is not operating properly, but continues to use it and causes damages to a third person due to computer errors, the computer user can be liable for negligence. A company may be liable to persons who are harmed because the company’s management:
- Negligently failed to maintain its computers, resulting in computer error; or
- Negligently hiring, or failing to supervise, its computer operators.
The law regarding protection of privacy applies whether a computer is involved or not. However, computers have resulted in a greater awareness of possible invasions of privacy. This is because so much information can be stored in computers very quickly and easily. Therefore, computers can share information about you and can compile a great deal of data about you in one place very quickly. A person who wrongfully discloses personal, computerized, information regarding others can be liable for damages. A company may be liable if it negligently hires, or fails to supervise, an employee who releases private information regarding others. In some States, a firm may be liable if it maintains inadequate computer security, thus enabling an outsider to obtain private information.
A person’s credit standing or reputation can be damaged if a computer contains false information, and this false information is supplied to a third person. In order to avoid liability, the person in control of the data must exercise reasonable care to prevent errors and to correct errors. Liability under this theory would be called defamation by computer.
Employers in a city formed an association to exchange information on job applicants. In a computer, the association stored information received from members about the grounds for discharging employees. Mary had been employed as a bank teller. She was later fired because she was arrested for embezzlement of bank funds. Mary was never able to obtain other work in the community because of the computer printout of the association showing her arrest. She sued the association for defamation. It raised the defense that she had been arrested for embezzlement. She replied that it was publicly known that shortly after she was arrested, she was released because it was established that the embezzlement had been committed by a cashier in the bank and that the cashier was arrested and convicted for the crime. Is the association protected by the fact that the computer was correct in what it stated? No. The association was clearly negligent in failing to update its records. It was obvious that Mary’s arrest would have a significant effect on her reputation. The association was therefore under the duty to take notice of the conviction of the cashier and to clear the record as to Mary. Having failed to do so, the association is not protected from defamation liability.