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Snooping on Your Spouse's Email - Computer Privacy in Massachusetts

During initial strategy meetings, I frequently advise new divorce clients to change the passwords to all of their email and social media accounts. The reason? Individuals getting a divorce frequently know their spouses' account passwords, and the temptation to snoop during a divorce can be very strong. Aside from the privacy and ethical concerns this raises, many people are unaware that snooping on your spouses email account can have criminal and civil consequences.

The Massachusetts Computer Crime Law, G.L. c. 266, § 120F, provides:

“Whoever, without authorization, knowingly accesses a computer system by any means, or after gaining access to a computer system by any means knows that such access is not authorized and fails to terminate such access, shall be punished by imprisonment in the house of correction for not more than thirty days or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or both. The requirement of a password or other authentication to gain access shall constitute notice that access is limited to authorized users."

Although this statute does not define “computer system," the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld, in part, a trial court’s conviction of an ex-husband for violating the Computer Crime Law after he remotely logged on to his ex-wife’s email account without her permission. Commonwealth v. Piersall, 67 Mass.App.Ct. 246 (2006). The Appeals Court held that each unauthorized login to a computer system constitutes a separate violation of the law. Additionally, the Appeals Court held that the offense is complete upon logging into a computer system; a defendant need not download, retrieve, or distribute actual computer files in order to have violated the law.

In addition to criminal liability, a defendant who logs into another person’s email may also be held civilly liable for invasion of privacy. Specifically, G.L. c. 214, § 1B codifies the common law right to privacy by providing that “[a] person shall have a right against unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with his privacy. The superior court shall have jurisdiction in equity to enforce such right and in connection therewith to award damages."

The lesson here is simple. If you know your spouse's account passwords, don't snoop! The criminal and civil consequences can be serious. Additionally, protect yourself. Although the law provides recourse to individuals who've had their accounts illegally accessed, any criminal violation must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Prevention is a better option. Change your passwords frequently and don't access email accounts on computers that you share with your spouse. He or she may be using software to track every word typed into the shared computer, including your usernames and passwords.

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