A recent case raises questions about the ethics of reading a spouse’s email. The gist of the situation is that Leon Walker of Michigan faces the possibility of up to five years in prison for allegedly “hacking” into his wife’s email account (they are now divorced) and learning that she was having an affair with her second ex-husband. Michigan does have a law against “hacking” computers, programs or networks to get property “without authorization.” Applying this law to accessing a spouse’s email is seen by some legal experts as a stretch, but Leon Walker might very well face trial under this law.
Walker has offered two main defenses for his actions.
His first defense is that his wife had asked him to read her emails before and had given him the password.
If this is true, then it would certainly seem that she had granted him authorization to access her email. As such, he would seem to have acted neither illegally nor wrongly.
Of course, there is the question of whether or not he was acting under her authorization when he learned of her affair. While it is possible, it seems somewhat unlikely that she would be sending and receiving emails related to the affair while still authorizing her husband to read her email. If she did, in fact, remove her authorization, then a case could be made that he did break the law. Ethically, it could also be seen as an incorrect act. After all, being married does not grant a spouse carte blanche access to the other person’s private matters and this would seem to include email. To use an analogy, if someone allowed her husband to open a bill addressed to her, this would not grant him a right to open all her letters and read through them without her explicit permission.
While it seems reasonable to accept a presumption of privacy even with spouses, there is still the question of whether the right to privacy gives spouses a right to hide misdeeds (such as having an affair). This leads to Walker’s second argument.
After getting the emails, Walker passed on the information with his ex-wife’s first ex-husband. This man used the information to justify filing an emergency motion to get custody of his son (whom he had with Clara Walker, the woman in question). The second ex-husband was apparently once arrested on a charge of domestic violence and since Clara Walker was apparently having an affair with him, Leon Walker saw this as a matter of significant concern.
Walker likened his reading his ex-wife’s email to kicking down a door during a house fire. While this would be breaking in, it would be breaking in with the intent of saving people from harm.
This analogy does have a certain degree of appeal. After all, just breaking down someone’s door to steal their stuff would be a criminal (and most likely immoral) action. This would be analogous to hacking into a computer to, for example, steal credit card numbers. In contrast, kicking down a locked door when a house is on fire so as to save people would not be a criminal act nor a wrongful action. If Walker is right, then his reading his ex-wife’s email should not be considered criminal or unethical.
Of course, when a person kicks down the door of a burning house they know that it is on fire and they have to gain access to actually help people. In the case of the email, Walker would need to have clear signs of a “fire” and would need to have reason to believe that he had to “kick down the door” in order to help people. This is, of course, a factual matter. It could be the case that Walker had reason to believe that his wife was having an affair and that crucial information relating to the safety of others was locked behind the password (and could not be acquired via other non-intrusive means).
If this is the case, then Walker would seem to have acted in an acceptable manner. After all, a right to privacy does not seem to give a person a shield behind which they can conceal misdeeds or hide information relating to a possible danger to, for example, a child. In such a case, the person’s right to privacy would be violated and in this they would be wronged. However, the violation could be justified based on the nature of what was being concealed. After all, it would seem odd to say that a married person has right to conceal evidence of her affair from her husband. He would certainly seem to have a moral right to know that.
In response, it could be argued that the right of a spouse (or ex-spouse) to know about such things does not extend to intruding into certain privacy rights, such as email. After all, while there is a certain appeal to thinking it was okay to get into someone’s email when they were having an affair, one must also consider all the cases in which the spouse is not having an affair. It would be odd to say that spouses should have the right to get into each other’s email, mail, and so on all the time because people have affairs.
Some legal experts and Leon Walker’s attorney are, of course, focusing on the legal aspect of the case. The law in question seems to have been intended to deal with cases in which someone has actually hacked into a computer or network and done damage or has stolen something.
While reading someone else’s email is an intrusion into that person’s privacy, it does not seem to fall under the law, at least as it is worded. After all, nothing seems to have been stolen from the woman and she can hardly claim that she was the damaged party when her affair was exposed.
It will be interesting to see how the case develops and what impact it has on legality of the no doubt common practice of spousal snooping.