This morning I received an interesting e-mail from an online security and surveillance Web site Security Central Exchange. It was a promotional e-mail featuring equipment aimed at catching cheating partners. It reminded me of the kind of things you’d find at a hacker conference: There was a USB keylogger to gather password data, a video camera hidden in a fully functional alarm clock that can record 42 days of continuous footage onto an SD card, and a $169.00 “cell phone reconnaissance kit” that allows a person to access the data on almost any model of smartphone and see what a person is texting, e-mailing, and who they are calling.
But is it legal? Similar sites boast “As long as you own what you’re monitoring, it’s fair game,” but the real answer to the question of legality is more complex and varies from state to state.
"The products are legal and they do follow federal regulations, however there are some specific state laws that are stricter than others," said Mark Schober, president of the company. " We usually put a disclaimer that it is in your best interest to follow the laws of your individual state or locality."
In the past few years, Wendy Alton, a Michigan divorce and family law attorney, says she’s seen cases where spouses have installed GPS units on cars or activated software on smartphones to track partners suspected of being unfaithful but that for the most part people aren’t using such sophisticated technology to keep tabs on their significant others.
Evidence gathered from covert surveillance doesn’t hold much weight in divorce court in Michigan, Alston said. “Our courts really see that marital property is shared fifty-fifty…so even if there is an extreme fault it doesn’t tip the scale much,” she said.
That kind of evidence does become more relevant in custody cases. “Maybe they’re doing drugs, or a gambler. It goes more toward the unfit parent argument. At that point when children’s lives are at stake really, the courts will look at that,” she said.
“You have to be really careful if you’re going to surveil somebody. Do these things actually end up in court? Mostly no,” she said. Michigan’s wiretap laws require consent to record a phone conversation for, example. “No judge is going to like a GPS unit on a car. That’s not going to reflect very well. Tapping into someone’s phone is also not going to be looked at very well even if you own it.”
“Any kind of technology that people are using to keep tabs on the other person, nine times out of 10 its not beneficial to the overall process,” she said.
And in a lot of cases, it's not even necessary.
“In most of the cases when a spouse is doing things on the Internet that they want to hide, either the password has been shared before, or they just don’t log out,” she said.
The Scorned Spouse
The recent case of Leon Walker in Michigan is an example what can go extremely wrong when trying to conduct surveillance on your partner. Walker long suspected his wife was being unfaithful. His wife suspected the same about him, even going as far as to put a GPS unit on his car to track his movements, he said in an interview on Tuesday.