Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Computer privacy proposal prompts concerns

By MATT WALTERS
Capital News Service

LANSING – Proposed legislation could make it legal to look at spouses’ or children’s computers and email without their permission.

Under current law, it’s a felony to access anyone else’s computer without their permission.

The bills’ sponsor is Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills.

It comes after Leon Walker, of Rochester Hills, was charged with felony computer misuse in December for accessing his then-wife’s email account without permission.  He discovered she was cheating on him.

Jonathan Weinberg, a law professor at Wayne State University, said legalizing such access, without the possibility of punishment, is the wrong way to go.

“I am not a huge fan of this proposal.  It would either make unauthorized access completely legal or a felony,” Weinberg said.

He said the bill would allow a person to access his or her spouse’s or child’s email and computer under any circumstances, but such behavior against anyone else would remain a felony.

According to Weinberg, the state should follow federal law, which makes unauthorized access a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances.

“There needs to be a step between legal and felony.  The federal law has a gradation of charges that depend on the seriousness of the crime.  Saying that it’s illegal to do this to a friend but legal to do it to your wife or husband just doesn’t make sense,” Weinberg said.

He said a spouse or child still has privacy rights that could be undermined by the proposal.

Shelli Weisberg, legislative director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said everyone has a right to privacy and McMillin’s proposal could lead to violations of that right.

“If a couple is going through a divorce or a domestic dispute, one spouse could access the other’s email or computer with the intention of doing harm.  If one spouse gets information meant to be private, without the other’s consent, this law would make it legal,” Weisberg said.

She said being married shouldn’t require sacrificing privacy rights.

“Just because you’re married or someone’s child shouldn’t mean that you have to give up your privacy,” Weisberg said.

Weisberg said there are many situations where unauthorized access to a spouse’s or child’s computer would be a problem, and the bill wouldn’t cover them.

She said the Walker case highlights flaws in the current law, but the ACLU doesn’t think McMillin’s legislation is the proper response.

“That man being charged with a felony is prosecutorial abuse more than a problem with the law.  I’m not sure this proposal would be a remedy,” Weisberg said.

She said that she was in contact with McMillin about the proposal but isn’t happy with his bill.

“You can’t write all possible situations into law.  It needs to be done on a case-to-case basis,” Weisberg said.

The bill is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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