Practically everyone has an email account, and they're used for personal and business reasons. It's only natural for us to expect a little privacy in our email, and there are all sorts of federal and state laws protecting that privacy.

A case involving former Governor Sarah Palin shows how serious it can be to break these laws and hack into someone else's email account.

College "Prank?"

In April 2010, David Kernell went on trial for "hacking" into then-Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin's personal email account.

In 2008, John McCain was the Republican party's candidate for president. Sarah Palin was the Governor of Alaska and McCain's vice-presidential running mate. David Kernell, the son of a Tennessee state lawmaker, was a student at the University of Tennessee.

At this time, it's claimed Kernell wanted to "derail" Palin's campaign, and he gained access or "hacked" into Palin's personal Yahoo email account. He apparently changed the password and posted personal information he found in the emails on a website. He also posted the password so others could access the account.

Kernell was indicted - meaning a grand jury thought there was enough evidence to put him on trial - on several federal charges. A jury convicted him of only two charges. He was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison.

The jury didn't buy Kernell's defense that it was all just a prank.

The Law

Kernell's case shows the types of crimes an email hacker may face. He was charged with four very serious felony crimes:

Wire Fraud

In simple terms, wire fraud involves using a computer, radio, television, or telephone to get money or property from someone else through trickery or deception. Although taking money is a common example - such as through various internet scams - stealing personal and confidential information qualifies as wire fraud, too.

One of the keys to wire fraud is that the emails, telephone calls, or wire transmissions have to pass between two or more states or countries.

It was claimed that Kernell used an old computer in Tennessee to hack into Palin's email account, which, presumably, was based in Alaska. Once in, he took personal information, such as email addresses and telephone numbers, and posted them online.

Kernell was not convicted of this crime.

Computer Fraud

Computer fraud isn't much different than wire fraud, except this crime applies only to computers, as opposed to telephones and radios, and it also requires some sort of interstate connection. However, the law applies only to computers used:

  • By or for financial institutions, like banks, or the US Government
  • In such a way that the computer impacts interstate or foreign commerce or communication of the US

Presumably, Palin's connection to the federal election and Senator McCain brought the federal computer fraud law into play. Kernell was convicted of unauthorized access to a protected computer, which falls under computer fraud.

Identity Theft

Identity theft is when someone uses fraud, deception, or trickery to get and use another person's personal information. Usually, the information is used by the thief to make money, but money doesn't have to be involved.

In Kernell's case, once Palin selected the email address, "gov.palin@yahoo.com," it became her own, unique address and no one else could use it. When Kernell accessed and used that email account he gained access to personal information, such as family email addresses, family pictures, birth dates of Palin and family members and pictures of Palin's family members.

This information was posted online as part of Kernell's plot to derail Palin's vice-presidential bid.

Kernnel was not convicted of this crime.

Obstruction of Justice

Obstruction of justice covers many things, but it typically means interfering with some legal process or investigation. Kernell was charged with this crime because it was claimed he tried to erase evidence of his hacking activities from his computer before federal investigators could retrieve it.

Kennel was convicted of this crime. 

Other Laws

Someone in Kernell's position could face other criminal charges and non-criminal (or "civil") lawsuits, too. The federal government doesn't have to get involved, either.

For example, in most states, there are criminal and civil identity theft laws. In addition, in some states, like Virginia, it's an invasion of privacy to look at someone's personal information, and it's a crime. In many states, like Maryland, accessing and telling the world about another person's personal information is an invasion of privacy that may make the hacker liable for money damages to the victim.

Even if, as it was claimed Kernell's case, the email hacking was a "prank," the hacker could still be charged with less serious crimes (called misdemeanors) and face several months in jail, thousands of dollars in fines or both.

Hacking is indeed a serious crime. If you're thinking about doing it, even as a joke, you should think again.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What's the first thing I should do if I think someone has hacked into my email account?
  • Is it a crime if I look at my spouse's email account without permission?
  • If my child uses my computer to commit a crime, can the authorities take my computer and search anything on it, including my personal files and data?

Tagged as: Communications and Media, Privacy Law, email hacking, privacy law lawyer