Is divorce-dirt snooping – aka electronically spying on your spouse – legal?

When you are in the thrust of a bad marriage and divorce is on your mind, you may be tempted to stoop to a lot of lows, including spying on your spouse. How else can you get the dirt you need to prove and win your divorce case? Call it what you wish, “domestic snooping,” “electronic spying,” “electronic spying and tracking,” it all boils down to the same thing: “spousal dirt-gathering surveillance.” And sometimes it is illegal.  Sometimes, this behavior is completely illegal and can land you in a federal penitentiary. No, seriously.
There are a bunch of federal and state laws that regulate what is and is not legal as far as spousal surveillance. From the federal side, you have the Federal Wiretapping and Surveillance Act; and Federal Wiretapp Act of 1968; and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act among others. This website from Cornell University has some good information about the Federal rules regarding electronic surveillance.
There are a lot of different mechanisms spouses use to spy on each other including: hidden cameras, computer spyware, digital eavesdropping devices, GPS, Keylogger, Email recording and more. Not everything is illegal in every State or even on the federal level. For example, if you own the car you can put GPS on it – even if you did so to track your spouse’s whereabouts. But you usually cannot tap someone’s cell phone. You can put devices on a shared computer to track internet usage but you have to be careful here that you are not accused of invasion of privacy. Under no circumstances can you put such a device on a private laptop of your spouse’s. Only a shared computer and even then be careful.
What are the consequences? Monetary fines – for one. But sometimes prison, if you are caught and depending on what method you used under what circumstances. The idea is that even when married, there is an expectation of privacy and there is a line that cannot be crossed without incurring some measure of culpability and liability. Plus, usually if you are spying for your divorce case, evidence obtained inappropriately and illegally is inadmissible in a court of law.
Best bet? Don’t snoop. Hire a private investigator who is skilled at this stuff and who is hopefully privy to the laws and rules on this issue and who is ethical enough not to break the laws even while he or she successful gathers the dirt.