If there is any word that has been bandied about more than any other during the 2016 election season, it is the word “email.” Deleted emails. Hacked emails. Sent emails. Classified emails. Both sides of the aisle have alleged crimes related to emails and other electronic communications.
The latest, of course, is the release of emails by Wikileaks, supposedly from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta’s account. These emails, obtained by hacking, if true, contain potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton. They include supposed transcripts of her paid speeches to financial institutions; positing that politicians should say one thing to one group and then do another; internal fights and squabbles; and negative things her inner circle has said about her.
Regardless of the politics behind the emails, and whether or not you think Wikileaks is a benefit to society providing a “freedom of information” service to the public or is simply a band of information thieves headed up by a pedophile, the law is pretty clear. What they are doing is a federal crime.
This kind of hacking can be prosecuted under either 19 U.S. Code §1030 or 18 U.S. Code §1343. You simply cannot hack into someone’s computer and take their information without permission. Whether or not the information is worth having, or should see the light of day, you cannot obtain it, according to U.S. Federal Law, in this manner.
Americans protect their freedoms vehemently: we also protect our privacy. You can’t be convicted for having cocaine if the cocaine was illegally obtained by the police. We have decided, as a society of laws, that our right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is more important than punishing anyone who is found with illegal contraband. Likewise, our information is our property. For the most part, we no longer keep stacks of correspondence or handwritten journals. We don’t even have photo albums. All of those things are stored digitally on computers. When people steal our pixels and bytes, they are stealing pieces of our lives that would otherwise be private. Think about Watergate: when Nixon’s cronies broke into the DNC offices at the Watergate Hotel, it was burglary and theft, plain and simple. How is breaking into a computer and stealing information that used to be on paper any different?
Of course, not all – or even most – hacking is on this scale. Theoretically, using the name of your friend’s dog to successfully guess the password on his email to execute a hilarious practical joke could be charged as the same crime. Odds are pretty good that your friend isn’t going to call the FBI to report the emails you printed out and hung up in the breakroom. But it could happen. And it is easy to imagine a scenario in which you want a heads up on, say, an article written about your company so you get your 15 year old son to help you hack into the computers at the local paper.
Not everyone who gets charged with a federal crime is a nefarious criminal with handlebar moustache and a “mwahaha” laugh, or wheeled in on a handtruck like Hannibal Lechter. Plenty of ‘normal’ people find themselves caught up in a situation in which they are charged with federal crimes and had better find themselves a qualified federal criminal attorney in a hurry. Younger folks in particular, who don’t think through the consequences, may find themselves facing time in a Federal Prison because they did something on a dare.