Access to a Spouse's Electronic Information
While married, spouses may share everything about each other's lives, including, but not limited to, electronic information. However, when a marriage does not work and the partners are going through a separation or divorce, what happens to all that shared electronic information? The issue becomes more complicated when a spouse has access to computers that contain the other partner's electronic information (e.g., emails, online banking username/password). A person going through a separation or divorce may be tempted to access the other spouse's emails, bank statements, online bills, and other electronic information to get the upper hand in a divorce proceeding. Many times this access is not lawful, and is punishable by fines and possible imprisonment. Are you involved in a divorce or separation? Do you want to ensure that your electronic information is protected? You may contact us to discuss how electronic privacy laws impact you during your divorce.
Both state and federal laws provide the rules and regulations on how access to electronic information must be acquired. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act ("ECPA") and the Stored Communications Act ("SCA") prohibit certain kinds of electronic eavesdropping and unauthorized access to electronic communication while in storage. The ECPA penalizes any person who intentionally intercepts or accesses "any wire, oral, or electronic communication" without authorization. An "electronic communication" means any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature. This includes phone conversations, emails, instant messages, and even social media accounts. On the state level, California Penal Code Section 502, prohibits a person to knowingly access or use any data or computer system without permission of the owner. Violations of these laws can result in fines and possible imprisonment.
One question is whether access was authorized. There are federal and state laws which apply to unauthorized access to information. If your spouse has given you an email password, then it is likely that he or she has granted authorization to access that particular email account. However, if you are only given an email password, and you then access a bank account, then it is not authorized. Are you unsure if authorization has been granted? California Civil Code Section 1708.8 states that a person is liable for invasion of privacy if the intrusion was "in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person." A husband or wife both have a reasonable expectation of privacy in protecting information stored on a computer or on the web. However, it is not always clear when authorization or consent has been granted to access electronic information. Also, it is not always clear what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy.
For more information, you should consult with a qualified attorney. At our law firm, we assist clients in legal matters by staying informed and using knowledge and expertise to create solutions.