By Robert L. Mues   |   May 11th, 2013

How Computer Cyber Security Laws Can Impact Family Disputes Differently From State To State

computerWith the recent buzz surrounding computer cyber communications and email hacking, one should be informed on the general principles and laws of their state.   These laws have come about due to the recent explosion in email hacking, bank hacking, and corporate espionage that have plagued the telecommunication industry in recent years.  An attempt to curb these crimes has led to adoption and passing of harsh penalties that accompany the acts.

The harsh penalties that accompany these laws have the capability to cause “collateral damage.”  That is, damage to individuals whom the laws are not meant to injure.  These cases, such as the ongoing case in Michigan, often involve family disputes.  Let’s take a look…

Walker v. Walker

Facts to understand:  Leon Walker began to suspect his wife of cheating on him.  Acting on this suspicion, he accessed his wife’s email without first obtaining her consent to see if his suspicions were warranted.  He states that he accessed these emails because he was worried that his wife’s ex-husband (whom he believed was the man having the affair with her) was abusive towards her in front of their children.

Problem: In accessing his wife’s emails, he accessed Google’s servers that were reserved for his wife without his wife’s consent.   This access violates Michigan law, specifically MCL 752.795 which renders any unauthorized…

  1. Access or cause access to be made to a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network to acquire, alter, damage, delete, or destroy property or otherwise use the service of a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network.

This law is extremely broad. Just the mere access to a computer that you are not authorized to access creates a violation. Penalties for this violation are extremely harsh; a person convicted of violating this law is subject to up to 5 years imprisonment, a $10,000 fine, or both. Repeat offenders may receive 10 years in prison, a fine of $50,000, or both.

This law is extremely broad. Just the mere access to a computer that you are not authorized to access creates a violation. Penalties for this violation are extremely harsh; a person convicted of violating this law is subject to up to 5 years imprisonment, a $10,000 fine, or both. Repeat offenders may receive 10 years in prison, a fine of $50,000, or both.

In case you’re confused, Leon Walker faces up to 5 years in prison for violating a law that prevented him for accessing his wife’s email on a computer inside his home which she used frequently.  She left the password to this email account lying around, and it was generally known where and what the password was.

These Michigan laws are extremely strict.  For a contrast, let’s take a look at Ohio’s laws and determine the differences that may have occurred had Walker decided to take that (hypothetical) job in Ohio.

Ohio Unauthorized Access to Computers Law:

In Ohio, the laws have a safety net compared to the tightrope act that Michigan codified.  This safety net includes the use of specific words to help ensure something along these lines never happens.

  1. No person shall knowingly use or operate the property of another without the consent of the owner or person authorized to give consent.
  2. No person, in any manner and by any means, including, but not limited to, computer hacking, shall knowingly gain access to, attempt to gain access to, or cause access to be gained to any computer, computer system, computer network, cable service, cable system, telecommunications device, telecommunications service, or information service without the consent of, or beyond the scope of the express or implied consent of, the owner of the computer, computer system, computer network, cable service, cable system, telecommunications device, telecommunications service, or information service or other person authorized to give consent.
  3. …if unauthorized use of computer, cable, or telecommunication property is committed for the purpose of devising or executing a scheme to defraud or to obtain property or services, for obtaining money, property, or services by false or fraudulent pretenses, or for committing any other criminal offense, unauthorized use of computer…

The inclusion of the words “consent” and more specifically “implied consent” lead one to believe that in Ohio, Leon Walker would not be facing the same dilemma.  Having a home PC with your email password sitting around near the PC can decisively lead a fact finder to the conclusion that whoever left the password lying around implied that anyone with access could view it.  (Similar to the idea that when I’m playing a baseball game with my fellow teammates, and I leave my bat on the bat rack with everyone else’s,  by leaving this bat out, I’m consenting to my other teammates that they may use that bat. If I don’t want my bat used, I’ll simply put it in my bag where no one else knows).

The word “defraud” can also lead a fact finder to the conclusion that Leon Walker would not be in the same predicament he is in now had he decided to live in the great state of Ohio. This word makes it clear that the statute, or at least section of the statute, is intended to protect against intrusions from hackers or other individuals who may attempt to siphon money or secrets, and not to ensure the safety of one’s children or the sanctity of one’s marriage.

Computer Cybercrime Conclusion:

In conclusion, each state is slowly but surely developing their cyber security laws. These new laws have not often been tested and face years of future litigation in order to develop a universally applicable norm that can be interpreted easily. In the process though, numerous people will fall victim to incidents similar to Leon Walker’s. While by no means should Leon have accessed his wife’s email, I believe that this is something that should have been handled in the home or domestic relations court, not in a criminal court with a possibility of prison time. Luckily, Ohio laws may prevent such an atrocity, but the development of these laws is still ongoing everywhere and will continue to develop throughout the nation as the world moves further and further into the digital age.

Special Thanks to our law clerk, Jason Irick, for his assistance researching and writing this blog article, “Computer Cybercrime Legislation: Spillover Tendencies”.  Excellent job Jason! We will be posting a future article dealing with when a person can and cannot snoop into their spouse’s email and Facebook accounts.  Please look for it!

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Robert L. MuesAbout The Author: Robert L. Mues
Robert Mues is the managing partner of Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has received the highest rating from the Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review for Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. Mr. Mues is also a founding member of the "International Academy of Attorneys for Divorce over 50" blog.

Computer Cybercrime Legislation: Spillover Tendencies
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