By Mike Stetzer
With our growing reliance on communication tools that evolve in years instead of decades, the legal system can sometimes struggle to fully protect our rights into cyberspace. Sometimes, it has trouble just determining those rights. Case in point: the case of Vladimir and Yelena Gurevich, married in 1990 and divorcing this year.
According to the New York Law Journal, the judge presiding over the divorce has ruled that Ms. Gurevich can use e-mails she found in Mr. Gurevich’s e-mail account as proof that he attempted to hide his income from the divorce court.
The judge presiding over the case, Jeffrey S. Sunshine, was asked to rule on whether or not Ms. Gurevich’s removal of the e-mails from her husband’s e-mail account constituted "eavesdropping." Justice Sunshine ruled that while New York penal law prohibits individuals from "intercepting" e-mails in transit from sender to recipient, that law did not apply to this case. Ms. Gurevich used her husband’s password information to view e-mails received and stored within the account.
Inside, she found e-mails that she alleges prove that her husband intended to hide his true income, in conjunction with an accountant and several business partners. She reportedly accessed the account without her husband’s knowledge or consent, and Mr. Gurevich contested that printed copies of the e-mails were inadmissible as evidence, but the judge’s ruling will allow Ms. Gurevich’s attorneys to introduce the e-mails as evidence.
According to Mr. Gurevich, the e-mails were stolen, but his wife contends that since he had previously given her permission to access the e-mail account and never revoked it, her access was lawful. At the core of the issue is the notion of consent.
If you allow someone to access your e-mail account once, does that permission remain in effect? Are you required to expressly state that your spouse can no longer access your e-mail? What about your password? Is a person entitled to continue to use a password you gave them until you change it?
While many would argue that Ms. Gurevich violated the law in spirit, the statute on the books only covers intercepted e-mails, e-mails diverted to an account that the sender did not intend. According to the judge, since Ms. Gurevich had been given access to the intended account (her husband’s), her act did not constitute "eavesdropping."
As the courts address more and more issues that deal with new and emerging communication methods, the above questions may be answered in legal terms, but for now anyone going through a divorce must actively protect their personal information.
Divorcing couples may want to take thorough stock of shared user information and separate it into two components, one for each party. Just as divorcing couples quickly move to change joint credit cards, e-mail passwords, Web identities and shared logins represent potential opportunities for one party to take advantage of the other.
As you go through a divorce, chances are that you will be concerned about protecting your material assets. Don’t forget to change the locks that guard your digital property as well.