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Computer Misuse
The Naughty Installation

Hands up any reader who has installed a computer program, only to find that it has corrupted some other long loved and dearly established aspect of your system. I join you now.

We know that some companies seem to make a determined attempt to destroy our machines and software. They take a possessive view that if their customers are so stupid as to install their software, they are too stupid ever to be deserved to be allowed to move on. I refer, above all, to the various Internet Service Providers. This is an old but still painful issue. Rumour was that in the early days, an installation of Compuserve software would over-write and disable essential Windows files. Rumour was that Windows installations were not above returning the compliment.

The latest to be up to this appear to be AOL with Version 5 of their software. It is rumoured that in installing his software some 200 or so native Windows files are overwritten with AOL versions.

From the Computer Misuse Act 1990

Unauthorised modification of computer material

3.--(1) A person is guilty of an offence if--

(a) he does any act which causes an unauthorised modification of the contents of any computer; and

(b) at the time when he does the act he has the requisite intent and the requisite knowledge.

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(b) above the requisite intent is an intent to cause a modification of the contents of any computer and by so doing

(a) to impair the operation of any computer;

(b) to prevent or hinder access to any program or data held in any computer; or

(c) to impair the operation of any such program or the reliability of any such data.

(3) The intent need not be directed at

(a) any particular computer;

(b) any particular program or data or a program or data of any particular kind; or

(c) any particular modification or a modification of any particular kind.

(4) For the purposes of subsection (1)(b) above the requisite knowledge is knowledge that any modification he intends to cause is unauthorised.

(5) It is immaterial for the purposes of this section whether an unauthorised modification or any intended effect of it of a kind mentioned in subsection (2) above is, or is intended to be, permanent or merely temporary.

(7) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable etc

We must acknowledge that any computer software is likely to have unforeseen conflicts with other programs. A modern PC has many millions of lines of code which may be called upon at one time or another to work together. Bugs happen. It is also the case that an installation must, for example create entries in registers. An installation must, by common demand, also be simple.

At the same time however, many many millions of pounds ride on who can acquire Internet 'eyeballs'. Whoever can force a person browsing the Internet to view adverts for long can sell advertising. In order to acquire this wealth, and great wealth it will be, the temptation is to use tactics which will bind the consumer more closely to the software company. Thus arise software installations which become, shall we say, difficult to remove.

In essence, they argue, that whatever we need to do to install the software is consented to by the user. That consent amounts to authorisation, they say, and so, no offence is committed. I have heard this said on many occasions. It will not wash. Many software house go well beyond what is necessary. They consent or authority obtained is at best uninformed, and at worst it is obtained by misrepresentation.

Before I move on, can anyone tell me how to de-install a browser infected with Freeserve? I have tried. I have rung Freeserve, and they were, shall we say in a state of denial.

A software house seeking genuinely to look after their customers should inter alia

  1. Inform the customer, by means of a list, of what files are to be destroyed
  2. Provide opportunities to create backups of any files affected, and
  3. Provide a full and secure uninstall routine.

The failure to do this will not be determinative of whether an offence has been committed. It does show a clear contempt for users.

This interpretation derives in part from the House of Lords decision in R v Bow St Magistrates, ex parte Allison 1999. Here it was said that authority to access data of one type did not mean that that authority extended to all data of the same type within a system. The analogy is that an authority to install software does not include authority to install files which are put there for different purpose, or where for example, restoration to the previous state is not immediately possible. An uninstall should be always available, complete and effective.

Important: Please note that our law-bytes are retained for archival purposes only. The law changes, and these notes are often, now, out of date. You must take direct advice on your own personal situation and the law as it currently stands.
All information on this site is in general and summary form only. The content of any page on this site may be out of date and or incomplete, and you should not not rely directly upon it. Take direct professional legal advice which reflects your own particular situation.
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Copyright and Database Rights: David Swarbrick 2012
18 October 2013 http://www.swarb.co.uk/lawb/cpuCMANaughty.shtml 24 18 October 2013