I want you to close your eyes and imagine a world where it’s illegal for your girlfriend or your roommate or your ex or your wife or your boyfriend to read your email. Not just unethical, not just against the rules of Lesbian Fight Club, but actually illegal. As in, you could spend up to five years in prison for doing so.
Are you panicking because you don’t know how you’ll maintain your Big Brother-esque control over your significant other’s whereabouts without regularly violating her privacy? Or do you feel excited because now your significant other can no longer impose her Big Brother-esque control over your whereabouts – or at least has to find a way to maintain such control without regularly violating your privacy?
Well, in Rochester Hills, Michigan, Leon Walker is being charged with a felony after reading his now-ex-wife Clara Walker’s Gmail account on the laptop they shared. Leon, Clara’s third husband, learned via email-spying that Clara was having an affair with her second husband.
Oakland County prosecutors are using a state statute generally only used to prosecute crimes like stealing trade secrets or identity theft, so this case is a bit of an oddity, and could possibly become a really big deal.
In conversation with The Free Press, Frederick Lane (“a Vermont attorney and nationally recognized expert who has published five books on electronic privacy”) said that 45% of divorce cases involve some kind of snooping but generally these things come up in civil court, not criminal court. Lane says that the couple’s co-habitation and Leon’s alleged regular use of the computer could work in his favor.
Was Leon actually snooping through email because he was looking out for the welfare of the child? Or because he suspected his wife was cheating on him? Does it matter?:
Oakland County prosecutor Jessica Cooper, in a voice mail to the newspaper, calls Walker a skilled “hacker” who used his wife’s e-mail “in a contentious way.”
In preliminary testimony, Clara testified that while Leon had bought her that laptop, it was hers alone and that she kept the password a secret.
Leon Walker says he routinely used the computer and that she kept all of her passwords in a small book next to it. “It was a family computer,” he says. “I did work on it all the time.”
The thing is — this sounds like a pretty special and unique situation and it’s kinda unfortunate that this will be the first time something like this enters the courtroom. If your child is literally in danger, I think checking your wife’s Gmail is probably the responsible thing to do.
This is the sentence where I use this story about these people to launch into a broader discussion about e-mail privacy, etc. READY LET’S GO!
Prosecuting the act of snooping in your wife’s email when the government is likely tracking our every move and Google has implanted mind-control chips in our fingers and the Patriot Act EXISTS seems a bit out of line. Listen I’m basically a s*c***ist but that kind of legislation seems just a tad too invasive. This is the kind of thing people should work out on their own, it’s not really a government issue.
However, I admire the spirit of this case! BECAUSE SNOOPING IN SOMEONE’S EMAIL IS FUCKING STUPID.
Email snooping is tricky business and in my opinion, it’s very rarely okay.
Nobody’s relationship with anyone should be taken out of context, and you never know how your girlfriend might communicate differently with different people.
A friend of mine I’ll call “Mackenzie” (because I just watched this video on Jezebel of the 4o-year-old trapped in a toddler’s body) regularly sent me panicked emails regarding her various neurotic paranoias, such as “Will I get stuck on the A train tomorrow?” or “Am I too dumb for my own job?” “Is [x] a bad friend?” “Will we never have sex again?” or “What if she’s just not my type and I’m not into her anymore?”
When two lines after asking, “What if she’s just not my type and I’m not into her anymore?” she asks about the likelihood of her impending date with death via meningitis, it’s pretty clear that these questions aren’t meant to be taken seriously, let alone used as the basis for a major blowout and relationship-reckoning session. But if you were Mackenzie’s girlfriend, you might never be able to shake the feeling you felt when you read “what if she’s just not my type?” which is why, Mackenzie’s girlfriend, you should never read Mackenzie’s email.
What if there is an affair, however? What if, for example, you’ve gifted your on-again-off-again boyfriend a Mac laptop and, when said laptop breaks, you (kindly) offer to try and fix it and in lieu of success, pay for someone else to fix it (also he may or may not STILL owe you $300 from a vacation you took in 2003) and while the laptop is in your possession and you are investigating its brokenness in order to PAY for it to get FIXED, you happen upon a folder named after a girl whose picture, suspiciously, was on the nightstand you’d stare at forlornly after having sex with him again even though you’d promised your soul NEVER AGAIN? What if this folder contained love letters between the boy and Nightstand Girl during the period in which he said she was “just a friend”/”like a sister”? Would it then be ethical to drive to his house and throw the laptop at his face? I think so. In that case, I feel, it is appropriate to break the laws of Bisexual Fight Club. IMHO.
Recently, I had this conversation, which I think is the way all these conversations should go:
Person #1: (looking over my shoulder at the computer) Why does [person] [verb] [action]?
Me: Why are you reading my G-Chat?
Because — in my opinion, that’s all that needs to be said. I’ve had to leave work mid-afternoon to deal with a snooping roommate/sexual partner/co-worker/best friend (yes I know, bad idea, you never want all those things to be the same person).
Of course, those scenarios — and I’m sure you all have horror stories of your own (PLEASE SHARE!) — pale in comparison to what Leon Walker was considering when he checked Clara’s email.
Polls on The Free Press website and the USA Today indicate most agree that snooping isn’t okay, but that it shouldn’t be criminalized either:
…and it’s unclear where this fits in with statues like the Electronic Communications Act, which as the name implies protects private electronic communications from being accessed without a warrant. Though it’s widely believed that opening someone else’s postal mail is against the law, that’s not the case precisely:
In the United States there is no specific constitutional guarantee on the privacy of correspondence. The secrecy of letters and correspondence is derived through litigation from the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In an 1877 case the U.S. Supreme Court stated:
No law of Congress can place in the hands of officials connected with the Postal Service any authority to invade the secrecy of letters and such sealed packages in the mail; and all regulations adopted as to mail matter of this kind must be in subordination to the great principle embodied in the fourth amendment of the Constitution.
We have long regulated the right of the government to go snooping around. No reading mail, J. Edgar Hoover. No reading email, Robert Mueller. (Sort of…hello Patriot Act). But with new advents in technology that enable toddlers to be proficient at computer use before they fully develop fine motor skills, we must consider how digital snooping should be regulated on a citizen’s level. Or maybe not. What do you think?