One of the wildest of these cases involves Michigan man Leon Walker. In the summer of 2009 Mr. Walker accessed his wife’s Gmail account when he believed she was cheating on him. He claims Clara Walker, his now ex-wife, kept her password in a book near the computer and he believed it would be OK to read her email in their home to confirm his suspicions. Ms. Walker and Oakland County prosecutors pressed charges of felony misuse of a computer, having a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
The prosecution contends that Walker used his specialized skills and knowledge as a computer technician to hack into his wife’s email (Oosting, 2011). The law they are using was passed in 1979 by the Michigan State Legislature. Act 53 of 1979 relates to fraudulent access to computers, computer systems, and computer networks but the prosecution focused on Section 752.795:
A person shall not intentionally and without authorization or by exceeding valid authorization do any of the following:
(a) Access or cause access to be made to a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network to acquire, alter, damage, delete, or destroy property or otherwise use the service of a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network.
Insert or attach or knowingly create the opportunity for an unknowing and unwanted insertion or attachment of a set of instructions or a computer program into a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network, that is intended to acquire, alter, damage, delete, disrupt, or destroy property or otherwise use the services of a computer program, computer, computer system, or computer network […]
Unsurprisingly the defense feels the law is inappropriately being applied in this case. The law was originally created to prevent identity theft and hacking that could lead to other crimes. In reference to the act defense attorney Leon Weiss said “The word 'e-mail' does not appear in this statute. This is an anti-hacking statute. It does not, in any way, shape or form encompass reading somebody's e-mail.” He continued “People who live under the same roof, be they married or not, and who share a computer -- as in this instance -- they may have some personal privacy lines that they adhere to. And if they don't, that's between the two individuals” (Bury, & Hovell, 2010).
This case expanded past only those involved. Former House Speaker Chuck Perricone told the Oakland Press he was concerned by the precedent the case could set. State Representative Tom McMillin wants to introduce legislation to clarify the law. Criticizing Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper on how the case is being handled, McMillin feels she is wasting taxpayer money and was quoted “Since it appears at least one prosecutor in the state can’t see that [the law was never meant to curb spousal snooping], I’ll introduce legislation early next year to clarify … the obvious” (Oosting, 2011).
Walker did discover his wife was having an affair with her 2nd ex-husband, Walker being her third. As guilty as Clara Walker is of having an extramarital affair, an interview from Nightline illustrated substantial education and reasonable legislation will be required to address privacy. In the interview Clara Walker said “I hope that he will let go of this anger that he has towards me… we are a team, whether he likes it or not.” As the audience must have been thinking interviewer Bill Weir points out the obvious: “But you do know that you’re going to testify against him with the goal of putting him in jail, so that’s a lot to ask.” Walker responds “It is, but what does he expect me to do? I mean, he violated my privacy. I was violated. So what about me? … He’s making it all about him. He forgot what he did. And it’s not fair for him to keep this going and forgetting about what he actually did to me” (Wilson, 2011). A strong emotional response, to be sure, but one wonders how one can suggest reading email is a significantly more substantial crime than lying and cheating to cover up an affair.
There is no easy solution. However, it is clear that lawmakers could never foresee how technology would be used and new laws must be created to address our concerns today. Old laws are too antiquated, inflexible and unrelated to modern society to be used properly. Definitions of public and private are changing every day, as are the aspects of our lives people are willing to make public or want to keep private. In the case of Leon and Clara Walker, one wonders if a husband could go to jail for opening his wife’s mail or looking through her drawers, as this is essentially a modern day equivalent.