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Husband Charged For Reading Wife’s Emails

A Michigan man faces five years in prison for reading his wife’s email:

Could someone face prison time for snooping through a spouse’s e-mails?

For Leon Walker of Michigan, the answer was yes.

Suspecting that his wife was involved with another man, and worried that it was affecting their daughter, Walker logged into Clara Walker’s Gmail account last summer. Walker, 33, said it was easy for him to log in because his wife kept the password in a book next to the computer. “I definitely felt it was OK to confirm [the affair] by reading her e-mail in our home,” said Walker.

While Walker believed it was OK, Oakland County prosecutors did not and have charged Walker with felony misuse of a computer. If convicted, he could face up to five years in prison.

[...]

Prosecutors contend that Walker — who is a computer technician — illegally hacked into his wife’s computer after she had filed for divorce, but Walker’s lawyer calls the prosecution’s claim an overzealous application of a law meant to protect trade secrets and credit card data.

“People who live under the same roof, be they married or not, and who share a computer — as in this instance — they may have some personal privacy lines that they adhere to. And if they don’t, that’s between the two individuals,” defense attorney Leon Weiss said.

“The word ‘e-mail’ does not appear in this statute. This is an anti-hacking statute,” Weiss said. “It does not, in any way, shape or form encompass reading somebody’s e-mail.”

It’s rather absurd to charge Walker with “hacking” if his wife (note: they’ve since divorced) left the password by the computer.  And, indeed, I’m sympathetic to the argument that a shared computer among spouses living in the same domicile comes with a lowered expectation of privacy.

Furthermore, the thing the then-Mrs. Walker was trying to keep “private” was illicit conduct that the husband had every right to know about.  Especially in light of what strikes me as perfectly legitimate questions about the well being of their child.

And, of course, it would seem that there are better use of Oakland’s police and judicial assets.  Aren’t they in fiscal crisis at the moment?

All that said, people do have some expectation of privacy even from their spouses.  I’m not sure where the line at which criminal charges come into play is drawn.  But I’d think considerably further than this.

UPDATE:  A commenter points me to Eugene Volokh‘s posting on the matter from last week:

In principle, it’s just as illegal for a husband to access his wife’s e-mail without permission as it is for him to access someone else’s e-mail without permission. The question is whether the wife had expressly or implicitly authorized the husband to access her e-mail. If she hadn’t, then I suspect the husband’s behavior would violate the statute, because it involves access to Google’s computers in a way that exceeds the husband’s authorization — we are all allowed to access Google’s computers through our Gmail accounts, through Google searches, and so on, but not through the Gmail account of another person without that person’s authorization. That result might not be completely obvious from the statutory text, partly because the statute speaks in terms of unauthorized access to computers (likely because it was enacted in 1979), and not unauthorized access to data; things would be clearer if the statute specifically barred access to data on a computer without the authorization of the person who is properly considered the owner of the data. But as I understand it statutes such as the Michigan one have generally been read to cover such unauthorized access to others’ e-mails on third-party computers.

Since my wife and I explicitly have access to each other’s Gmail accounts (we share calendars, documents, and occasionally need to search for emails relating to family business), I tend to think of this as commonplace.  Presumably, the Walkers weren’t on the best of terms.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. ALP says:

    I’m Not sure about computer sharing privacy between people in a private home, but i think it is something like looking in your spouses purse or wallet. I don know that it is a violation of Federal Law to check your spouses credit report or rating.

    I just think it is something someone should not do!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  2. sam says:

    He did something more than merely log onto his wife’s computer, lest anyone think that’s all that happened. He used her password to log onto her Gmail account on Google’s servers. It’s not as if he was reading her email on a local email client on her computer (bad as that might be). Eugene Volokh discusses the case here. Evidently, this is the first time such a domestic action has been brought under the relevant statute, which heretofore has been applied to identity theft and such.

    ALP is pretty close to the mark. The computer is question was his now ex-wife’s laptop. That’s close, I think, to going through her purse. Anyway, all that said, divorces can really, really unpleasant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  3. Trumwill says:

    Meh. I think my expectation of privacy with regard to my wife is pretty minimal and vice-versa.

    More broadly, I get frustrated when I am trying to pay off something she owes (she works long hours and doesn’t have the time to deal with a lot of this stuff) and I am cut off at the knees because they can’t tell me how much she owes or to whom she owes the money.

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  4. Trumwill says:

    Meh. I think my expectation of privacy with regard to my wife is pretty minimal and vice-versa.

    That would be better to read “… expectation of privacy with regard to my wife should be pretty minimal…”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Sam and @ALP: What if, rather than enter the password she left out, he merely used her computer and it auto-logged because she set the cookies that way?

    @Will: Yeah, my wife and I know each other’s Gmail passwords and we share docs. She searches my Gmail all the time to find messages she’s sent me and otherwise to conduct family business.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. ALP says:

    @James. Think I should have said, that is something someone should not do without express permission from the spouse. is it was her personal laptop, he should have had permission.

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  7. sam says:

    @JJ

    @Sam and @ALP: What if, rather than enter the password she left out, he merely used her computer and it auto-logged because she set the cookies that way?

    I honestly don’t know under that set of facts what would happen. It would depend, I’d guess, on how the statute is construed.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @Sam: On my home computers, anyone could easily get into my Gmail account because I leave it logged on. So does my wife. So I frequently wind up in her Gmail account if I’m on the laptop we share. (We have multiple PCs but just the one laptop, which we leave in the living room if we’re not traveling.)

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