Am I legally allowed to sneak a peek at my friend’s / brother’s / sister’s / son’s or daughter’s / partner’s / person sitting next to me on the train’s Facebook page or text messages?

 

This is absolutely a true story that has an admittedly weak connection with the question in the title to this post. Still, I like to tell it, so please indulge me once again as I try and explain complex legal issues using my own personal life.

 

I once met a beautiful woman, who was later to become my wife, when we were at work. We worked for the same law firm, on the same floor, in offices that were almost next to each other. Despite what she will tell you, I DID notice her first, when we were in a group training session. I thought to myself ‘Wow, that woman is smart, funny, beautiful and is hopefully very understanding when it comes to her life partner sharing personal stories, in a public setting, about how she met her husband. There is no way she can be single’.

 

I was quickly smitten, and had to know whether she was single or not. At the time, social media was still very much in its early days. I do not believe I even had a Facebook account at the time, and a quick Google search on her name did not come up with anything. Well, the searches I ran did come up with women with her name, but I quickly established that none of them was the woman I was interested in.

 

I am not proud of this, but in the absence of being able to find out information about her online, like a gentleman, I resorted to sneaking into her office at work one evening, when she was away from her desk, to try and see if there were any personal items that might answer my question on her relationship status.

 

Sadly, I saw she had some photographs stuck to her wall, which included her standing next to a handsome young man, both smiling and looking happy. Deciding that it had to be her boyfriend, I accepted that, once again, I had been bested by another man, and hung my head in shame.

 

The end to this romantic tale was that my wife was not seeing the gentleman in the photograph after all; she was single, and prepared to put up with me for the rest of her life (or until she reads this).

 

But my actions could have been taken as stalking, or at least an invasion of her privacy, if my wife decided to make an issue of it at the time. As she probably should have, and perhaps wishes she now did. Things may have been even more serious for me, and more concerning or embarrassing for her, if I was able to log on to her computer and read her emails, or look up her Facebook page. I am not saying I would have, but then again, I am not saying I would NOT have. Look, she is hot and I wanted to find out if she was single!

 

Yes, I appreciate the hypocrisy of me writing an entire post on judging people for invading another person’s privacy, when I have just admitted to being likely to do it if the opportunity arose. No, I do not appreciate your judgment of me.

 

Now that we have that little personal anecdote out of the way, we can get to the real question at hand: is it illegal to log onto someone’s Facebook (or other social media) page, or to log into their emails and read them, or do other similar activities to learn more about that person, or steal their information or personal details?

 

Disturbing as it is, we as individuals do not have a legal right to privacy in Australia. ‘Stop lying’, I hear you say, ‘of course we have a right to privacy. That is what all those privacy policies are on the websites I visit’.

 

Well, yes, there are privacy laws in Australia, but these do not give us a right as individuals to maintain our privacy. What these laws mainly do is tell companies that collect our personal information how they must keep that information and when they can use it.

 

That means that if I did log onto my wife’s Facebook page, or went through her emails, when we first met, and snooped around for a while trying to find out if she was single or not, she could not charge me with breach of privacy. Not that she would, because she is a lovely and forgiving person, who could have had me fired by telling our bosses what I had done.

 

If I had, however, logged onto my wife’s computer and used her Facebook page, or email, or internet browser to steal her identity, or to pretend to be her for the purpose of committing a crime, then I would be in deep legal poo.

 

Every State and Territory, and our national Commonwealth laws, all make identity theft a criminal act, either through specific laws dealing with this, or through the way they apply their general criminal laws. Regardless of what the name of the law is, the result is the same – if you assume someone’s identity, or misuse someone’s personal information, for the purpose of committing a crime, then you can be charged with identity theft.

 

These types of crimes are almost always about one person stealing someone else’s identity to get access to their money or credit cards. However, I guess I could still be charged with identity theft if I misused my wife’s personal information for the purpose of stalking her. Stalking is a criminal offence, so this might have fallen under the identity theft laws if my actions went beyond ‘just’ looking through her emails to see if she had a boyfriend.

 

If you are a victim of someone logging into your personal accounts, then the obvious steps are to change your password and let the website’s owners know about it. I know, that kind of stuff is a pain, but it is even more of a pain to try and restore your credit rating or your good name if someone starts using your social media accounts to send out horrible messages, or gains access to your bank accounts.

 

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