Communications and Media

Is Email Hacking a Serious Crime?

Reviewed by Brian Farkas, Attorney

Today, nearly everyone has an email account. Many people have both a personal account and a work account, and maybe another account or two for special purposes. It is only natural for us to expect some degree of privacy in our email. Fortunately, there are numerous federal and state criminal laws that attempt to protect that privacy.

A case involving the email account of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin illustrates how serious it can be to break the laws regarding email privacy and hack into someone else's email account. This case provides a useful example of the law in this area.

Merely a College "Prank?"

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

It all started back in 2008, when John McCain was the Republican party's candidate for president and Palin was McCain's vice-presidential running mate. Kernell, the son of a Tennessee state lawmaker, was a student at the University of Tennessee.

At this time, it is claimed that Kernell wanted to "derail" Palin's campaign, and he gained access or "hacked" into Palin's personal Yahoo email account. He changed her 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 on several federal charges, meaning a grand jury thought there was enough evidence to put him on trial. A jury convicted him. He was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison.

The jury was not persuaded by Kernell's defense that it was all just a prank.

Types of Laws That Can Be Invoked Against an Email Hacker

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

Charges of Wire Fraud for Email Hacking

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. This is prohibited by 18 U.S. Code § 1343, known as the Wire Fraud Act.

Although taking money is a common example of wire fraud, 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.

Charges of Computer Fraud for Email Hacking

Computer fraud, codified by 18 U.S. Code § 1030, is similar to wire fraud, except this crime applies only to use of computers, as opposed to telephones and radios. 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 U.S. government, and
  • in such a way that the computer impacts interstate or foreign commerce or communication of the U.S.

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 the description of computer fraud.

Charges of Identity Theft for Email Hacking

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.

Charges of Obstruction of Justice for Email Hacking

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

Additional Laws That Could Be Used Against an Email Hacker

Someone in Kernell's position could face other criminal charges, as well as civil lawsuits.

For example, most states have passed criminal and civil identity theft laws. In addition, in some states, like Virginia, it is an invasion of privacy to look at someone's personal information, and this act constitutes 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 are thinking about hacking into someone's email, 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?
  • I did a lot of hacking into email accounts and so on when I was young--for how long do I have to worry about being prosecuted for this?
  • 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?
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