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Electronic snooping

From lawbrain.com

As the Internet grows by leaps and bounds, information about nearly anyone is just a few keystrokes away. While it is clearly not a crime to perform an internet search on someone’s name, ask friends and family or e-mail your acquaintances for information, it is surprisingly easy for mere curiosity to cross the line into an unethical or even illegal act. Trying to enter someone’s private e-mail account or breaking into protected updates on social networking sites like Facebook™, MySpace™ or Twitter™ can actually be criminal acts. In some states, these actions can be considered violations of privacy or fall under the purview of anti-stalking laws. Federally, these acts may be considered computer fraud, computer and information theft or cyber terrorism, violations of which can even result in felony charges.
When Does Snooping Cross the Line?
Sometimes businesses or government agencies actually use hacking-type actions for legitimate purposes. So long as these actions are strictly-controlled, for example to gather evidence of civil torts (such as dissemination of trade secrets, libel or defamation of character), criminal actions, or as part of a clearly-publicized school / workplace policy, it is legal to access private e-mails. E-mails can be particularly valuable sources of information given the fact that people are generally less-guarded with their language and more apt to share incriminating information.
Hacking, defined as breaking through a security barrier without permission to access data, is both unethical and illegal if not used for a legitimate civil or law enforcement purpose. There are several different methods of accessing someone’s e-mail, all of which can be unethical, rude and possibly illegal. Hackers have even posted videos on the Internet describing how to do it! Some computer software programs can be utilized which will run infinite combinations in an attempt to obtain a user’s e-mail password; more common is for an individual to try and guess the password of an acquaintance. Should you be given a person’s e-mail password it is unethical, but probably not illegal, to “snoop” on them by reading it.
It is also possible to gain access to private e-mails or Web pages via interception of information routed across the public Internet. This may or may not be considered a criminal act, since the public Internet is an unsecured forum. Another method of gaining access to seemingly private e-mails or Web pages visited is to just open the pages or programs on a computer where the prior user did not log out. Again, this is inappropriate, unethical and rude, but is probably not illegal; there is no expectation of privacy in the information if it was left for public access.
Using hacking techniques to break into the e-mail or private social networking page of another person (for example an ex-boyfriend or boyfriend, former spouse, adult child or new beau) is just wrong. These actions may seem innocent to you – you may be just trying to gather information or trying to play an innocent prank by resetting a friend’s password. No matter your intent, you may be in violation of state or federal law. It is important to remember that ignorance of the law is no defense — you can still be held liable regardless of whether or not you thought your actions were criminal.
Deleting Does Not Erase the Evidence
Even if you clear your Internet history or delete any documents you compiled, there is likely still evidence of hacking on your computer. Through the process of computer-hacking forensics investigation (commonly known as “cyberhacking”), experts can dig deep into the content of your computer and locate incriminating evidence. These types of investigations can be done in both civil (particularly business-related) and criminal (by law enforcement agencies, the military and homeland or business security specialists) cases. While these investigations are expensive and time-consuming, they are becoming more common.
Another method for gathering evidence of computer hacking is the process of keystroke logging. This method involves tracing and recording user keystrokes through a hardware or software program. These programs can be remotely installed and are, unfortunately also used by scammers to discover sensitive personal and financial information.
It is important to remember that, particularly where the hacking involves social networking sites, that the person whose account was invaded will discover the culprit – oftentimes the hacker will brag to friends about the event. Someone will likely spill the beans and inform on the guilty party.
What Happens Next?
Not only does electronic snooping have possible civil and criminal consequences, it causes a huge headache for the person whose account was violated. While new e-mail accounts can be set up quickly, updating contact information with friends, family and businesses can be time-consuming. Furthermore, cancelling social networking accounts and establishing new ones could possibly take weeks, not to mention the time involved to try and prevent identity theft or other fraud.
Laws governing violations of personal electronic information are constantly evolving. To learn more about current laws and potential courses of action if you have been a victim of hacking, you should consult an attorney who has in-depth knowledge of this emerging area of the law.

Original article content provided by Blumenthal Law Offices; like all LawBrain articles, this article may be edited by any user.

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