Pitfalls When Accessing the Phone and Computer of a Loved One

A recent New York Times article titled I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone discusses the plight of a woman who has just lost her mother. The article discusses how her mother’s history and personal information was only accessible through her iPhone or apple accounts. However, she did not have her mother’s password and decided to hack her way into her mother’s accounts.

When a loved one passes away, it is often useful to access cell phones, computers, and online accounts to help settle affairs and find assets. However, there is one large pitfall: The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Hacking is a federal crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. If you access the electronic devices or accounts of another person without “authorization” you may have committed a federal crime and be subject to prosecution. Even after someone passes away, it may still be a crime to try to log in to that persons accounts and even if done with the best intent to settle the estate.

Federal prosecutors do prosecute for hacking. As a high profile example, Julian Assange is being prosecuted for unsuccessful assistance in hacking a password and the federal prosecutors are seeking a 5 year prison sentence. So, this is not an issue to be taken lightly.

The author of this article likely does not know that she may have committed a crime and that her article may create an easy case for a federal prosecutor. This is one out of many reasons why it is so important to have sound legal advice when managing the estate of a loved one or assisting a loved one who is aging or who has a disability. Small acts which may appear harmless can result in anything from small issues to criminal liability. So, before you act, contact your attorney and come up with a plan that protects you from liability.