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Is It Illegal to Go Through Someone’s Phone

Is It Illegal to Go Through Someone's Phone

Going through someone’s phone may seem like a mundane activity, regardless of the purpose behind it. However, did you know that it can get you into trouble with the law if you do it wrongly? In this article, we talk about phone checking and spying and what laws apply to it. Read on!

Is It Illegal?

Although specific laws vary from country to country, going through someone’s phone without permission is illegal. Wiretapping and privacy laws around the world enforce this through criminal charges.

Invasion of Privacy

Going through someone’s phone without permission is an invasion of privacy, which refers to any action that intrudes on someone’s sense of privacy. Even when the person has given their consent once, it doesn’t mean you can legally go through their phones again at will.

Moreover, installing spyware, stalkerware, or tracking app on somebody’s phone to follow their location is also illegal.

Tracking Your Loved Ones

Mobile phones have GPS technology that allows people to see where their phone is. Phones that don’t have GPS can be tracked through cellphone tower triangulation; though this isn’t as accurate as GPS tracking, it still gives trackers the ability to track your general location.

Surveillance devices and apps have proliferated, making it easier to track another person — often their spouse, loved ones, and other people — whenever a person feels the need. If you think of doing this, know when:

Permission is Required

Even though tracking someone through cell phones and going through their messages are easier now, it doesn’t mean you can legally do so.

Unless you’re a part of law enforcement groups and have a warrant, it’s illegal to track the location of an adult person through their phone without their consent. This also means you can track them as long as you ask for their permission.

Permission Isn’t Required

Child-tracking cell phones are legal for parents to use. Laws around the world don’t require parents to ask permission from minor-aged children to track them.

Recording Conversations

Phone calls and cell phone conversations can be intercepted even without you going through the device. However, it would be illegal to do so without the permission of the parties involved in the conversation.

It Requires Warrant

Even if you’re part of a law enforcement agency, you still need to secure a warrant before you can “bug” calls or acquire cell phone records as part of your investigation. Needless to say, it’s illegal for a private individual to do such a thing.

It Requires Consent to Look Through Someone’s Phone

You can legally record phone calls or intercept other communications if both parties have agreed to record the call. This is the reason you hear pre-recorded messages that say your customer service call may be monitored or recorded for QA purposes.

You can do the same and record calls for your own purposes as long as you inform the other party that you’ll record the call. If the other party disagrees, you can’t record the call.

Laws About Smartphone Privacy

Smartphones are essentially handheld computers, and you can discover a lot about their users when you go through them even casually. Again, going through them without the owner’s permission is illegal.

Smartphones are also prone to spyware apps. If used improperly, spyware apps can land you a criminal charge. The Wiretap Act and Privacy Act in 1986 are federal laws that make it illegal to secretly record:

  • Face-to-face conversations
  • Telephone calls
  •  Text
  • Emails
  • Other electronic communication that is “reasonably expected to be private”

Exceptions to this rule include:

One-Party Consent Rule

The one-party content rule allows you to record someone secretly if at least one person in the conversation consents to the recording. Private citizens can record their calls as long as they’re the other party in the conversation and they consent to the recording.

Put another way, it’s legal to record yourself having a conversation with someone because you’re a party to the conversation and you consent to the recording.

Two-Party Consent Rule

Meanwhile, the two-party consent rule states that you should disclose the fact that you’re recording the other person. You have to take part in the conversation.

To clarify, intercepting text messages, phone calls, and GPS location doesn’t qualify for one-party consent unless you tell the other person you’re monitoring their phone. If you don’t, recording the call is considered a felony under wiretap laws.

Punishments of Going Through Someone’s Phone

You may face several charges if you’re caught going through someone’s phone using spyware illegally.

Intent to Wiretap

Under the Electronics Communications Privacy Act, it’s a felony to “intentionally intercept” wire, oral, or electronic forms of communication. It also outlaws “endeavoring to intercept” communications — so even if you fail, merely attempting to wiretap and eavesdrop is considered a crime.

Potential punishments include:

  • Five years  of imprisonment
  • A fine of $250,000 max for individuals
  • A fine of $500,000 max for organizations

Possession of Wiretapping Equipment

It’s also a felony to “manufacture, distribute, possess, or advertise” oral, wire, or electronic intercepting devices. To be proven guilty, the prosecution should provide evidence that you intentionally manufactured, possessed, distributed, and advertised such devices.

The penalty for this violation includes:

  • Five years of imprisonment
  • A fine of $250,000 max for individuals
  • A fine of $500,000 max for organizations

Disclosure of Information Obtained Through Illegal Wiretapping

It’s a felony to use or disclose information acquired through unlawful wiretapping or electronic eavesdropping.

If you aim to acquire evidence against a cheating spouse, information acquired through spyware on mobile phones or other illegal methods of going through your partner’s phone wouldn’t be admissible in court. You will face civil and criminal charges.

The penalty for this violation includes:

  • Five years of imprisonment
  • A fine of $250,000 max for individuals
  • A fine of $500,000 max for organizations

Alternative Punishments

Other punishments include:

  • Forfeiture of equipment: the law permits the forfeiture and seizure of any device “used, sent, carried, manufactured, assembled, possessed, sold, or advertised” in violation of the Privacy Act.
  • Alternative fine: if there is monetary loss or gain associated with the violation, the law may require the offender to pay an alternative fine “not more than twice the amount of the loss or gain.”

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