Sharing family photos, email and other information on the Cloud may sound like a good idea, but experts agree, shared accounts can cause unforeseen headaches during a divorce. As Dallas Divorce Attorney Aubrey Connatser explains, “When couples and families use shared Cloud accounts, more is shared than you realize.”
Brian Ingram, owner of Consulting Investigation Services and a Certified Digital Forensic Examiner, warns couples to avoid the Cloud. “I don’t recommend people share cloud accounts, because there are simply too many things that can go wrong.”
While the Cloud – or “intergalactic computer network” – was first conceived in the 60s, it wasn’t until recently that this platform to share information found its way to consumers’ fingertips and became an increasingly popular tool to gather evidence during divorce disputes.
Thanks to the prevalence of smartphones, tablets and an endless stream of apps that keep us connected, the Cloud has changed the landscape of divorce. Whether an affair is inadvertently revealed through shared devices, GPS-enabled apps reveal your location or feuding spouses deliberately (and sometimes unlawfully) access information to use as evidence – the Cloud plays an integral role in family law cases today.
Aubrey explains how communications intended to stay private can be revealed on the Cloud.
Unprotected Email Accounts Are Frequent Targets During Divorce
Brian, who regularly testifies as an expert witness in family law and criminal cases nationwide, says unprotected email accounts put many unwitting spouses at risk.
“What we’ve found recently, especially in the past 18 months, is that couples will have a shared Cloud account where they automatically back up the data for their linked devices – including their email accounts. One spouse will log into the Cloud account and change the settings on the other spouse’s email account to automatically forward copies of those emails to another account,” Brian says.
What many people don’t realize is that doing so can be a crime if you don’t have specific permission to access the other party’s email account.
According to Aubrey, “Even if you give limited consent to your spouse for a specific purpose, i.e., ‘Yes you can log in and look at this email pertaining to our tax return,’ that doesn’t necessarily mean your spouse can go in and look at any emails he or she chooses.
Illegal interception of emails in transit or hacking into someone’s email impermissibly, as well as forwarding those emails to another party, can have serious criminal implications. Unlawful access to stored communications is a violation of federal law and the Texas penal code.”
Just Because You Have a Password or Access, Doesn’t Mean It’s OK
“I testified in a case where an abusive boyfriend hired a hacker to access his ex’s email account. He (wrongly) believed because he was not the one who hacked the account it wasn’t illegal for him to go into her account, change her settings and get copies of all of her emails. He was wrong,” Brian says.
People also mistakenly assume they are entitled to access whatever information they choose from a spouses phone, tablet or other electronic device.
As Aubrey explains, “Many people unintentionally (or not) break the rules when it comes to technology. He or she may believe they are entitled to access any information on a spouse’s phone or tablet, when in truth, there are many different standards when it comes to confidentiality.
Whether it’s email confidentiality, communications between your spouse and doctor (which is HIPPA protected) and the like, people don’t think about those things. If you’re unsure, ask your divorce attorney for advice.”
Adds Brian, “The thing that most people don’t get is there is no spousal exception to the law and no defense that says you can’t be prosecuted if you’re the spouse of the victim. In one extreme case, an Austin, Texas man was arrested, charged and convicted for installing spyware on a family computer and intercepting his wife’s emails.”
A Computer May Be Community Property, But Data Is Another Story
Many people also believe if they live in a state with community property laws like Texas, that the data accessible on a shared computer via the Cloud is community property. However, that simply isn’t the case.
Brian believes people look at the computer as a pipeline. As he explains, “Maybe the data isn’t saved on the computer, but it’s accessible through the Cloud, say in Yahoo email, where it’s on the computer temporarily. In reality, it’s sitting on a server somewhere else, and if it’s an individual account you haven’t received permission to access, that data is not community property.
At the same time, if you are sharing an actual email and/or Cloud account, then you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy to anything saved in that account, because you have already given that person carte blanche access.”
If You’re Not Tech Savvy, Get Expert Advice NOW
The trouble with technology is most people don’t understand all of the capabilities that devices, apps and the Cloud offer. It’s also easy to forget you knowingly gave a former partner permission or access to information in the past that you want to keep private now.
Aubrey discusses what people should do to protect confidential information.
“People often don’t think about or understand the long-term implications and dangers of taking advantage of technology. If you check a box to share information on the Cloud today, are you going to remember to uncheck that box a few years from now when you file for divorce? And do you understand the legal implications associated with that decision?” says Aubrey.
If you’re planning to divorce, don’t walk around with your head in the clouds. Contact an experienced family law attorney for advice. He or she can connect you with a reputable technology expert (who can help you take appropriate steps to protect confidential information) and ensure you avoid destroying evidence you are required to maintain by law.
Stay tuned for Cloud Safety Tips! In an upcoming post, Dallas Divorce Lawyer Aubrey Connatser and Certified Digital Forensic Examiner Brian Ingram break down several vital tips to help you stay safe in the Cloud during divorce.