Protecting Your Privacy During Divorce

Man Facing Prison Time For Reading Wife's Email

Have you checked your spouse's email account lately? If you have, you may have committed a crime, or at least you may have if you live in Michigan.

In a case generating national attention, Michigan resident Leon Walker was charged under the state's anti-hacking law for checking his wife's email without permission, a crime normally reserved for charging those who have committed identity theft or stolen trade secrets. If convicted, Walker may be sentenced up to five years in prison.

Walker and his wife were in the process of divorcing, but still sharing a residence, at the time he checked her personal email account. While he did not have permission to check her email, Walker had purchased the computer for her, the computer was kept in their home and he regularly used it. Walker's wife also kept all of the passwords to her accounts in a book she stored next to the computer.

Walker said that he read her emails because he believed she was having an affair with her second ex-husband and feared for the safety of his children. His wife's emails confirmed that she was having an affair with her ex, whom she had accused of physical abuse at the time of her second divorce.

Walker's wife, however, has contended that her now ex-husband violated her privacy rights and he should be convicted of the crime.

Michigan lawmakers have gone on the record saying that their intent behind the anti-hacking law was not to charge spouses who have been spying on each other, but to punish much more serious criminal offenders. The county prosecutor, however, believed that Walker had violated the law as it was written. Walker's trial is scheduled for the beginning of April.

Spousal Snooping In Minnesota

Leon Walker is the first spouse in Michigan — and possibility any other state — to be charged criminally for reading his wife's emails. While all states, including Minnesota, have criminal laws prohibiting unauthorized access of information stored on a computer, these laws generally are reserved to punish those who have committed serious breaches of electronically stored data.

For example, in Minnesota, a person is guilty of committing the crime of unauthorized computer access if he or she "intentionally and without authorization attempts to or does penetrate a computer security system" (§609.891). Serious breaches of security can be charged as a felony under this law, but accessing personal data is charged as a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and/or up to a $3,000 fine.

While by definition a husband logging into a wife's email account without permission could constitute unauthorized access, to date no spouse has been convicted of violating this law in Minnesota.

Some legal commentators worry that if the Michigan court decides to convict Walker of the criminal charges, it could have a watershed effect in other states choosing to follow its example. As one lawyer said, there simply are not enough courts in the country to handle all of the potential cases of spousal snooping.

Steps To Keep Your Private Information Private During Divorce

If you are getting divorced, you should assume that anything you post online can be found by your spouse, even if the information is password protected or not available to the public. Even so, this does not mean you have to make it easy for your soon-to-be-ex to collect potentially damaging information about you from your online accounts.

Here are some steps you can take to protect your "private" information:

  • Change your passwords and security questions: If you are considering divorce, separated or in the middle of divorce proceedings, change all of your passwords, including those of your email accounts, bank accounts and any other accounts you access online. Change your security questions and pick those with answers that your spouse is unlikely to know.
  • Strengthen your security settings on social networking sites: If you belong to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, make sure you have set your security preferences to private or the equivalent highest setting to prevent public access to your information. Go through your "friends" list and remove anyone who may give your significant other access to your account.
  • Don't put anything in an email you don't want your spouse to read. Emails to your new boyfriend or girlfriend or those telling a friend about an upcoming expensive trip can come back to haunt you in a divorce proceeding. A judge can issue an order requiring you to keep your emails and they can be used as evidence against you in court.
  • Be wary of what you post online: You also should be very careful about what you post on social networking sites, in chat rooms, on blogs and other cyberspace sites. Facebook is the go-to site for divorce attorneys digging for information on soon-to-be ex-spouses. This information can be used as evidence against you during a divorce and may impact everything from the property settlement to child custody to spousal support.
  • Remove questionable content: If you have any information on your Facebook profile or other social networking site that has the potential to cast you in a bad light, take it down immediately. This includes photographs, messages exchanged on your wall, status updates and any other information that may be incriminating. It's best not to put this type of information about yourself online, but if you have, take it down.


Whether or not you are going through a divorce or not, you should be careful about the information you post about yourself on the Internet. Not only can this information be used against you in a divorce, but you never know who may be looking at it.

For more information on divorce and protecting your privacy from your spouse, contact an experienced divorce attorney today.