Certainly one of the biggest news items at the moment is the ongoing controversy regarding the “news-gathering” activities of those associated with the News of the World, a tabloid newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Employees working for News of the World have been accused of hacking into the phones of individuals with sensitive information, including victims of the 7/7 London Bombing, as well as other unsavory behavior.
How illegal would these activities be in California? Well, the answer is “pretty illegal”, both from a criminal and civil perspective. Phone hacking is defined as the practice of intercepting telephone calls or voicemail messages, without the other party’s consent. Using technological devices to “hack” into another person’s private information is generally unlawful in the United States unless carried out as a lawful interception by a government agency.
In California, phone-hacking and other eavesdropping methods are prohibited by the “Invasion of Privacy Act”, which is contained in various California Penal Code statutes. The Act was created due to an acknowledgement of the growing presence of advanced telecommunications equipment, and the availability of devices by which to intercept and record electronic communications. Violations of the Act can lead to imprisonment and fines. Separately, the Invasion of Privacy Act also provides for a civil action against any person who has engaged in phone-hacking or other electronic eavesdropping. A successful civil claim provides for the greater of $5,000 in damages, or the “actual damages” suffered by the aggrieved person. Additional damages may be available if the communication was not only intercepted, but also disclosed to third parties. Further rights and damages may be found under Federal Law, specifically the Omnibus Crime Control Act.
A related question that we occasionally find clients asking is “can I tape-record someone I speak to on the telephone?” ala Mel Gibson’s ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. Generally the answer is “no”. In California, it is unlawful to tape-record a telephone conversation without the other person’s consent. It is also a crime; violations can lead to imprisonment and fines up to $10,000. However, there are certain exceptions to this rule. For example, victims of domestic violence can sometimes obtain court orders allowing telephone calls to be recorded without the other party’s consent.
Communication technology is advancing at an amazing rate, barring the complaints we all have about the occasional dropped cell call. Moreover, the internet is filled with offers for electronic gadgets we used to think were only available for spies. However, before one thinks about engaging in some covert eavesdropping, they should think long and hard about the possible penalties for doing so. News of the World would have been well advised to follow this advice.