Cyber snooping may land a person in federal prison

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Internet crimes are relatively new and still largely undefined in the legal world. But statutes designed to protect company trade secrets, identity theft or other information fraud may also apply to people who discover something about you from an e-mail someone was not necessarily authorized to access.

"We've entered a whole different world where all kinds of damage and harm can be done electronically without ever stealing information," University of Utah law professor Wayne McCormack said Tuesday. He said the questions surrounding privacy are more vague when it comes to the Internet.

Man facing felony for reading wife's e-mail

Further interpretation of the law will likely come with the case of a Michigan man who is charged with felony computer misuse for accessing his wife's e-mail account while she was allegedly carrying on an affair. A February trial date has been set for Leon Walker, 33, who faces up to five years in prison if he is convicted on the charge that is intended to nab hackers or others who use the Internet to defraud or otherwise cause harm.

McCormack said that the way the federal statute is written, "it is illegal to obtain information about a spouse that the spouse hasn't authorized you to have."

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Walker claims he was concerned about his daughter's welfare when he suspected his wife was having an affair with an abusive person. After she had already filed for divorce, he used her password to access her account on the couple's shared computer.

Information discovered within her account didn't come out until the divorce was heard in court and a battle for custody of their child ensued, according to Walker, who has gone public with the details of his case.

Prosecutors in Michigan don't buy his story and are charging Walker with unauthorized access to a computer in order to "acquire, alter, damage, delete or destroy property," according to NBC News.

According to the report, Walker's attorney plans to argue the statute is not applicable to "domestic snooping."

"We are just now getting into this world of cyber crime," McCormack said. "We are just now beginning to understand what it can do."

He said that applying current laws to everyone in a personal relationship who allegedly sees a text or e-mail would have far-reaching implications and mean a lot more court time. Ultimately, he said, a person would have to prove injury due to information obtained.

"People have to start thinking about this question of privacy," he said.

"Snooping" on spouses common

Utah divorce attorney Eric Johnson says this "computer misuse" -- what many people would call "snooping" -- is extremely common.

"Anybody who's in any way technologically savvy typically thinks, 'Hey, this might be a place where I can find some dirt on this spouse,'" he said. "So it's certainly not unusual."

But is this electronic snooping a criminal offense?

In Utah there hasn't been such a case prosecuted this way, but that doesn't mean there might not be one in the future.

For a lot of couples, being charged with a felony in a case like this is a bit much, even for a betrayal of trust. So the question becomes, do two wrongs make a right?

There are a variety of ways to answer that question.

Ben Taylor of Salt Lake City said, "I'm not sure he deserved a felony for that. It seems a little harsh."

Alex Cramer of San Francisco said if it was his wife who did the snooping, "I don't think I would try to prosecute her in court or anything, but we'd probably have a talk about it."

Greg McMurray of Bountiful has a different view: "If the laws are there and he disobeyed the law, then he's responsible."

Even though there hasn't been such a "test" case in Utah, the advice from attorney Johnson is simple: Don't snoop. Trespassing and privacy laws are prosecuted in divorce cases all the time, he says.


Story compiled with contributions from Wendy Leonard and Richard Piatt.

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