Family Law Newsletter Spring 2013: Can you spy on your spouse with technology?

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

By Alan J. Pransky


Since the creation of the institution of marriage, some people have suspected their spouse of cheating. One of the natural instincts following such suspicions is to try to prove the adultery. An age old method of such proof is to hire a private investigator to follow the spouse and obtain proof. This is a costly undertaking. If the investigator fails to find proof, there is still doubt as the spouse may commit adultery on a day when the investigator wasn't following. Today, some people turn to technology to confirm the suspicions.

One of the easiest ways to spy on the spouse is to merely look at the spouse's computer and cellphone. Looking at emails, text messages, or listening to voice mails may give the confirmation desired. Sometimes the spouse looks at the computer or cellphone innocently and learns some information. An example is that the spouse's cellphone may be sitting on a table when it rings and a picture of the paramour appears. Such accidental discoveries are not spying as the term requires intentional conduct. The intentional perusal of the spouses' cellphone without permission is spying and may be illegal. However, some spying may be permitted as the entire family may share one computer or cellphone. Spying is not permitted when a spouse has exclusive use of the electronic device. In fact, such spying may be criminal conduct that can be punished by fine or imprisonment.

It is clearly criminal in Massachusetts to record the voice of any person without that person's permission. G.L. c. 272, § 99. If two people have a conversation, both must consent before the conversation can be recorded. Producing a tape in a divorce trial of a conversation that was secretly recorded may be a greater problem for the spouse who made the recording than the spouse who was recorded.

Installing spyware on a computer to capture keystrokes can also be a criminal act. There are at least three state laws that may apply to such spyware. G.L. c. 266, § 120F prohibits unauthorized access of a computer system. Spyware on a spouse's exclusive computer should be considered a violation of this statute invoking criminal penalties. G.L. c. 272, § 99 prohibits the interception of wire communications as well as oral communications. Although no reported case has attempted to apply this law to computer spyware, the purposes of the law indicate that it should include such communications. Furthermore, the law prohibits owning a device that is capable of such interception. Computer spyware has no purpose other than to intercept computer communications. As such, possession of such software is probably a crime in Massachusetts. The third criminal law that can apply to computer spyware is the stalking law: G.L. c. 265, § 43. This law punishes a pattern of conduct or series of acts of “spying” on a person combined with a threat of harm. While not every marriage breakup has threats, they frequently do. As a result, an argument can be made that computer spyware combined with a threat of harm meets the definition of stalking. Similarly, using a GPS device to track a spouse may be stalking or even an unathorized use of a computer if the GPS device is found in the spouse's cellphone or auto anti-theft device.

Spying destroys trust and can destroy the marriage even if adultery ne­ver occurred. If the spying fails to prove cheating, the innocent spouse may feel the marriage is over because of the lack of trust. A better way to address suspected adultery is to do so in the context of marriage counseling. Of course, therapy is designed to improve the marriage and not obtain evidence of adultery for a court proceeding.

As a general rule, proof of adultery does not play a significant factor in a divorce proceeding. While Massachusetts Judges will listen to proof of adultery, they seldom use evidence of adultery as a factor in deciding how to terminate a marriage. If a party attempts to prove adultery by evidence obtained by spying on the spouse, most judges will exclude the evidence and not consider the proof. Judges refuse to consider such material as doing so would encourage such illegal acts in the future.

The result of such spying may be forcing a break up of the marriage, criminal charges against the person who obtained the evidence, and failure to use the evidence in court. In addition, obtaining actual proof of infidelity may cause far more emotional distress than mere suspicion.

Divorce attorneys have different opinions on the need to actually prove adultery.  Some attorneys feel that actual proof is not helpful in a divorce case as Judges tend to ignore such proof.  Other attorneys think that proof of adultery should be used to leverage a better settlement from the other side.  Regardless of the opinion of the attorney on the usefulness of proof of adultery, no attorney should recommend a course of conduct that involves digital spying on a spouse.  

Alan J. Pransky is a sole practitioner with an office in Dedham.  His practice concentrates in family law, real estate law, and litigation.  Mr. Pransky has been an adjunct professor at Newbury College, and has adjudicated in Moot Court Law Competitions and conducted many continuing education seminars.  Mr. Pransky graduated from Syracuse University College of Law and received a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Massachusetts.

Mr. Pransky is admitted to practice in Massachusetts, the District Court for Massachusetts, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court.  He is on the Board of Directors of the Norfolk Law Library Foundation and is a member of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Real Estate Bar Association of Massachusetts, and the American Civil Liberties Union.  Mr. Pransky recently chaired a program at MCLE entitled  "Practicing Family Law in the Age of Facebook® & Computer Spying: MCLE Family Law Briefing”.