As the Internet grows by leaps and bounds, information about nearly anyone is just a few keystrokes away. While it is clearly not a crime to perform an Internet search on someone’s name, ask friends and family about that person, or e-mail your acquaintances for information, it is surprisingly easy for mere curiosity to cross the line into an unethical or even illegal act.

Trying to enter someone’s private e-mail account or breaking into password-protected areas on social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter can actually be criminal acts. In some states, these actions can be considered violations of privacy rights or fall under the purview of anti-stalking laws. Under federal law, these acts may be considered computer fraud, computer and information theft, or cyberterrorism, violations of which can even result in felony charges.

When Does Snooping Cross the Line?

Sometimes businesses or government agencies use hacking-type actions for legitimate purposes. As long as these actions are strictly controlled, for example to gather evidence of civil torts (such as dissemination of trade secrets, libel or defamation of character), criminal actions, or as part of a clearly publicized school or workplace policy, it is legal to access private e-mails. E-mails can be particularly valuable sources of information, given the fact that people are generally less guarded with their language and more apt to share incriminating information than they might be otherwise.

Hacking, defined as breaking through a security barrier without permission to access data, is both unethical and illegal if not used for legitimate civil or law enforcement purposes. There are several different methods of accessing someone’s e-mail – hackers have even posted videos on the Internet describing how to do it. Some computer software programs will run infinite combinations in attempting to obtain a user’s e-mail password; more common is for an individual to try to guess the password of an acquaintance.

It is also possible to gain access to private e-mails or Web pages via interception of information routed across the Internet. This may or may not be considered a criminal act, since the public Internet is an unsecured forum. Another method of gaining access to seemingly private e-mails or Web pages visited is to open the pages or programs on a computer when the prior user did not log out. While this is inappropriate, it is probably not illegal; there is no expectation of privacy if the information was left for public access.

Most would agree that using hacking techniques to break into the e-mail or private social networking page of another person (for example a former or current romantic partner, adult child or new beau) is wrong. To some, these actions may seem innocent – you may be just trying to gather information or playing a prank by resetting a friend’s password. No matter your intent, however, you may be in violation of state or federal law. It is important to remember that ignorance of the law is no defense. You can still be held liable regardless of whether or not you thought your actions were criminal.

Deleting Does Not Erase the Evidence

Even if you clear your Internet history or delete any documents you compiled, there is probably still evidence of hacking on your computer. Through the process of computer-hacking forensics investigation (commonly known as “cyberhacking”), experts can dig deep into the content of your computer and locate incriminating evidence. These types of investigations can be done in both civil cases (particularly business-related cases) and criminal cases (by law enforcement agencies, the military, and homeland-security or business-security specialists). While these investigations are expensive and time consuming, they are becoming more common.

Another method for gathering evidence of computer hacking is the process of keystroke logging. This method involves tracing and recording user keystrokes through hardware or a software program. These programs can be remotely installed and are, unfortunately, also used by scammers to discover sensitive personal and financial information.

It is important to remember that, particularly where the hacking involves social networking sites, that the person whose account was invaded often will discover the culprit. For instance, the hacker will brag to friends about the event, and someone will spill the beans and inform on the guilty party.

What Happens Next?

Not only does electronic snooping have possible civil and criminal consequences, it causes a serious headache for the person whose account was violated. While new e-mail accounts can be set up quickly, updating contact information with friends, family and businesses can be time-consuming. Furthermore, cancelling social networking accounts and establishing new ones could possibly take weeks, not to mention the time involved to try to prevent identity theft or internet fraud.

Laws governing violations of personal electronic information are constantly evolving. To learn more about current laws and potential courses of action if you have been a victim or perpetrator of hacking, you should consult an attorney who has in-depth knowledge of this emerging area of the law.