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Is Email Hacking a Crime?

In April 2010, David Kernell faced trial for “hacking” into then-Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin’s personal email account.

In November 12, 2010, David Kernell was indicted (i.e., a grand jury believed there was sufficient evidence to place him on trial on federal charges). Thereafter, a jury convicted him of two charges. First, computer fraud. Second, obstruction of justice. David Kernell’s defense was that his conduct was a prank. However, the jury was not pursuaded and he was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison with a recommendation to spend his time in a halfway house.

This case is illustrative of the types of crimes an email hacker may face including: (1) Wire Fraud; (2) Computer Fraud; (3) Identity Theft; and (4) Obstruction of Justice.

Wire fraud involves the use of a computer, television, telephone, or radio to obtain property or money from another person by and through deception or trickery. Even though taking money is common through Internet scams, however, stealing personal and confidential information also constitutes wire fraud. One important requirement for wire fraud is that the emails, telephone calls, or wire transmissions have to go between two or more states or countries.

Computer fraud is similar to wire fraud but it only applies to computers. In addition, it requires some kind of “interstate” connection. The law applies only to computers used:

(i) By or for financial institutions (e.g., banks, credit unions); and/or
(ii) In a manner that has an effect on interstate or foreign commerce, or communications in the United States.

Identity theft happens when a person uses fraud, deception, or trickery to obtain and utilize someone else’s personal data or information. Generally, such information is used by the culprit (i.e., thief) to obtain funds, but it may not be the case at all times.

Obstruction of justice includes numerous actions. Generally, it happens when there is interference with a legal process or an official investigation. For example, David Kernell was charged with this crime since he allegedly attempted to delete evidence from his computer related to his hacking activities prior to federal investigators were able to obtain it.

Related Links:

1. Identity Theft, Privacy & Security Information and Resources from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (See http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/menus/consumer/data/idt.shtm)

2. Fight Back Against Identity Theft (See http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/articles/naps03.pdf)

3. KnoxNews: See http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2010/nov/12/prosecutors-palin-hacking-push-prison-time