Hacking Computers, E-mail Accounts and Phones — A Big Tennessee Divorce No-No


Hacking Computers, E-mail Accounts, and Phones—A Big Tennessee Divorce No-No

Hacking Computers, E-mail Accounts and Phones — A Big Tennessee Divorce No-No

Hacking Computers, E-mail Accounts and Phones — A Big Tennessee Divorce No-No

Is guessing a password to a computer, or e-mail account, or a phone considered “hacking”?

Guessing a password can be considered “hacking,” even if it’s a “weak” password or one you can easily guess, such as a pet’s name. The rule is that if you were not given the password, you cannot legally use it to obtain information and could find yourself charged with invasion of privacy or worse.

What if my spouse gives me the password?

If your spouse gives you the password to an email account, that most likely will be deemed permission, but problems can arise even here. If your spouse gives you a password for a particular purpose, say, so you can retrieve a particular person’s email address, but you use that access to read emails or forward them, that could be breaking the law, and any evidence you get in this way could be deemed inadmissible by a court.

What about hacking into bank and credit card account information?

Hacking into banking or credit card information stored on a computer with password protection can end up in the “illegal” column. Again, the fact that such information was password protected can mean that unauthorized access to it violates privacy laws. If the accounts are jointly held, you’ll have access to the information anyway through the bank or the credit card company directly, so why risk breaking the law?

If you suspect that a spouse has private bank accounts, credit card accounts, etc., talk to an attorney well versed in this area of law. He or she could get a court order to copy the contents of a computer and preserve the information it contains, thus preserving the opportunity to present it in court.

What about password or PIN-protected smart phones and PDAs?

The fact that a smartphone or PDA was protected with a password can be strong evidence that the user wanted and expected privacy. Divorce courts are being presented with more and more evidence in cases that revolve around phone messages, text messages, and other communications on media other than computers, but the same rules apply. If you were not specifically given a password to a spouse’s smartphone, you cannot legally dig into it yourself. Any evidence you come up with could end up inadmissible, and you could be charged with invasion of privacy.

Can I read texts on phones with a password or PIN protection?

No, as the fact that the phone was password protected establishes the expectation of privacy. When it comes to phones not password protected, the courts would probably rule in favor of the right to privacy and expect whoever read the messages to come up with a good reason for doing so. Perhaps two people were in the habit of using the same phone for calls, texts, and so on. But the fact that you owned the phone would probably make no difference; it’s the communication, not the device, that is protected by privacy laws.

Can I copy my spouse’s hard drive?

The answer is maybe. You need legal advice before you try anything like this. A lawyer can get a court order to copy a computer hard drive that might be used in court. The copy would end up in the hands of a forensics computer expert and then given to the judge to rule on the admissibility of the evidence. The idea is that critical evidence could be erased, and the courts can grant permission to copy a hard drive to preserve such evidence. If you don’t have customary access to a computer, or if it is password protected and if you haven’t been given the password, then it’s most likely illegal to copy the computer by yourself.

It is legal to make a copy of a hard drive in your own computer. If, however, you copy the hard drive of a computer that is not yours on your own, anything on there could be rejected as evidence in light of the illegal copying. This is why you should not do anything like this on your own. Get advice from a divorce attorney who is well versed in this procedure. Experts will tell you that unless there are huge bucks at stake, the expense and time required to get a court order is rarely worth it, especially if there are other means to get this same information, so don’t engage in “self-help discovery.”

Here’s some good advice when it comes to your personal security:

  • Frequently change your personal passwords for email, bank PINs, you name it, and make sure they are complex (containing a mix of numbers, symbols, and uppercase and lowercase letters). This is particularly important if you ever shared a password with your spouse.
  • Close joint bank accounts.
  • Delete personal information from Facebook, MySpace, etc.

Always keep in mind three important reasons never to try electronic eavesdropping—breaking into someone’s email account, installing spyware, or engaging in any other type of electronic snooping:

—It could be ruled a state or federal crime, a felony

—It could “taint” any evidence you find on it.

—It could alienate the court, which would frown on such “snooping” and considering it a violation of the right to privacy.

Get solid legal advice before you snoop electronically; this could save you a tremendous amount of trouble. A good divorce attorney can steer you to a reliable private investigator or computer expert who won’t get you in trouble.

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About 

Memphis divorce attorney and family lawyer, Miles Mason, Sr. JD, CPA founded the Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC. The firm practices divorce and family law only representing clients living in Memphis, Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Eads, Shelby Co., Fayette Co. Tipton Co., and the surrounding west Tennessee area. For more information, see our Meet the Team page.

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