Legal Question in Technology Law in Florida

email access

Is it illegal to view someone's email if they set 'remember password' on my computer, so when I log on I can access their account?

Asked on 7/03/09, 11:08 am

5 Answers from Attorneys

Sarah Grosse Sarah Grosse, Esquire
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Re: email access

It is illegal to access someone else's email without permission or to exceed the scope of that permission. The fact that you don't have to use the password to access the email is immaterial, unless you could somehow argue that this gave you implied authorization.

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7/03/09, 11:17 am
Brent Rose The Orsini & Rose Law Firm
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Re: email access

It violates both Florida and federal law to "hack" into someone else's computer or their computer information.

But you've asked a good question. If you don't have to do any "hacking" because the password has already been saved on the computer, I think the question becomes, "Did you have the right to access the computer?" If you did, I think you haven't broken any law.

The difference between you and the guy who broke into Sarah Palin's email, for example, is that you didn't have to "hack."

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7/03/09, 4:11 pm
Sarah Grosse Sarah Grosse, Esquire
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Re: email access

Mr. Rose makes a good point, but the law does not prohibit "hacking." The law provides criminal punishment for anyone who "intentionally accesses without authorization ... an electronic communication service..." (USC 2701). There is certainly a difference between "hacking" and unauthorized access, but both are illegal. In analogous terms it is the difference between breaking and entering (hacking) and tresspassing (unauthorized access) - both are still illegal.

Many questions arise about accessing someone else's email account. What if I guessed the person's password? What if they told me their password a long time ago and I used it today? What if I didn't need to use the password at all because the computer remembered the password? The answer is all of these are illegal if done without authorization or beyond the scope of that authorization. One can think of this analogous to going into someone else's house. Is it okay if I guessed where they keep the spare key and used it? It is okay if the neighbor lent me a key a long time ago to water their plants while they were out of town and today I used the key to go into their house to use their washing machine while they weren't home? What if they left their door unlocked so I didn't need a key - is that still tresspassing? It's all still tresspassing. You don't have to break the door down to illegally enter without authorization. Analagously, you don't have to "hack" to illegally access soemone's email.

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7/03/09, 5:05 pm
Brent Rose The Orsini & Rose Law Firm
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Re: email access

I guess good lawyers can disagree on things, and I know Ms. Grosse to be a good lawyer. That's why law is an art and not a science, and that's why we have judges.

I see Ms. Grosse's point, that accessing email violates a federal statute, 18 USC 2701. But that statute says it is a crime to "intentionally access, without authorization, a facility through which" email is provided. I don't think a home computer counts as a "facility," but I could be wrong. Moreover, the Department of Justice, on their website, has said the statute "is intended to address 'computer hackers' and corporate spies."

I really don't think the statute applies, but, as I said, I could be wrong. If accessing a spouse's or paramour's emails can lead to a federal prosecution, then I have a lot of family law clients who are headed for Club Fed.

I'll let Sarah have the last word, if she wants.

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7/03/09, 11:15 pm
Sarah Grosse Sarah Grosse, Esquire
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Re: email access

Certainly great minds will differ. I think the statute is just drafted overly broad, to be quite honest. It is silly for it to be a federal crime to snoop on your spouse just because you did so in their email account. And there is the issue of enforceability because I seriously doubt federal prosecutors are going to have time and energy to prosecute every claim of "my friend/spouse/girlfriend snooped through my email." But, let one college kid access Sarah Palin's email and all hell breaks loose.

I'll leave this one to the judges - or maybe the legislature will think to redraft the statute so it more narrowly targets the harm which it was intended to prevent.

In the meantime, question poster, stay out of other people's email - or at least don't get caught!

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7/04/09, 12:08 am

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