Email Is the New Cookie Jar. Even If You Can Reach It, Stay Out!

Do you know the password for the personal email account of your competitor, former employee, or ex-husband?  While the temptation to review the email of a previous ally turned adversary may be strong, you must resist. 

If you do not have express permission to access another person’s web-based email account—such as those found on Yahoo!, Hotmail and Gmail —such activity could land you in hot water.  Indeed, you risk not only civil liability but criminal liability too. In addition, since information – even illegally obtained—cannot be “unlearned,” it is best to keep your personal email passwords private and change them frequently. 

If you were given permission to access another person’s email account at some point, changed circumstances might mean that such authorization is no longer be adequate. 

In a recent Massachusetts case, two doctors who were shareholders in a medical clinic exchanged personal email account passwords to enable them to share specific information prior to the clinic’s acquisition of a remote-access software solution. Cheng v. Romo, 2013 WL 6814691 (D. Mass. Dec. 20, 2013).  Several years later, one of the doctors had a business dispute with the other doctor’s husband that resulted in litigation. 

In an effort to help her husband, the doctor tried the access the Yahoo! email account of her former business partner using his years-old password and voila, it worked!  She accessed the email account, and printed a series of emails that her husband used in his business litigation. Eventually, the wife’s involvement in obtaining the emails came to light. 

After the dispute between the husband and the other doctor resolved, the wife’s former partner sued her under the federal Stored Communications Act and for invasion of privacy.  The case proceeded to trial, and the jury found her guilty, awarding damages to the doctor in excess of $300,000.   

Exercise caution when accessing another’s email not only in business matters, but in personal matters, too. In Michigan, an information technology professional was involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife. He correctly guessed the password to her Gmail email account, accessed the emails and used them during the custody proceedings.  

The Michigan Court of Appeals found this was enough to prosecute him with violating of Michigan’s Unauthorized Access of a Computer statute (MCL 752.795). People v. Walker, 2011 WL 6786935 (Mich. Ct. App. Dec. 27, 2011) aff’d, 491 Mich. 931 (Mich. 2012).  Notably, according to media reports, before trial it was discovered that that the defendant’s ex-wife had been illegally accessing his text messages, and the prosecutor decided to drop the charges. 

Your situation might not be so fortuitous.

If you need to know information that is contained in another person’s email account, you should use legal channels to get the information. The consequences for snooping in another person’s personal e-mail account can be significant. 

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