When initiating any divorce matter, make sure to address digital assets right away. Separating digital lives during divorce prevents privacy breaches.
By Lance Fogarty, Digital Forensics and eDiscovery Expert
Divorce is never easy. At best, it can be complicated; at worst, downright ugly. Splitting up assets has always been an unpleasant task, but the advent of technology has intertwined spouses’ lives more than ever before. In the past, divorce was more a matter of dividing things like houses, cars, bank accounts, and credit card debt. These days, though, we conduct so much of our lives online that the lines quickly become blurred as to who owns what.
Think about your own online accounts. How many of those do you share with your spouse? If it ever came time to separate, who would get the Netflix or Alexa account? Even if it’s not a matter of ownership, how many of your private accounts does your spouse know the passwords to? The same is true for your clients. Our digital lives run much deeper than many of us realize on first thought. Going through a divorce in today’s technological age requires serious consideration of what each party’s digital life entails and the corresponding privacy concerns at risk when a marriage ends.
Separating Digital Lives During Divorce: First Steps
More often than not, spouses share computers, devices or even accounts for many aspects of daily life, meaning that even when couples physically separate, a spouse likely still has easy access to email and other accounts. The first thing to do, then, is to have your client set up an entirely new email account with a new password preferably chosen by someone besides the client. As much as people hate changing their email addresses, your client needs an email account the spouse doesn’t know about for the purposes of legal communications with you, if nothing else. Having privileged communications intercepted could be catastrophic for a divorce proceeding. Ideally, all communications should migrate to the new email, so that activities, interactions or whereabouts can’t be tracked and used as ammunition in the divorce.
The next thing to do is protect your client’s phone by advising the client to either set up a new Apple or Google account and have a professional ensure the account is properly changed on the phone. Apple IDs are particularly problematic, because Apple runs on the concept of families, meaning that things like shared calendars will continue to exist until updated and texts could even be showing up on a spouse’s computer. It’s also important to review the apps on the phone to ensure there isn’t anything unfamiliar. Many apps today are capable of tracking phone activity and location without the user even knowing, and divorcing spouses have been known to install such apps on their partners’ phones for exactly those purposes. The very best choice is a new service provider account, a new phone without restoring a backup, and a new Apple or Google account.
The same goes for computers – you should know everything that’s on your client’s machine. If spouses shared a computer, advise your client to separate the personal data and rebuild the computer from scratch. Not everyone is tech-savvy enough, so if you need help, take the devices to the Geek Squad or other similar qualified technical support and have them assist in performing the work.
Once you take these initial steps, you should have a reasonable expectation that your client’s communications with you going forward will be private. The next step is to make a detailed list of all your client’s various online accounts that the spouse might be able to access and start assessing their privacy accordingly.
Separating Digital Lives: Privacy Concerns
For most people, privacy isn’t a concern in a marriage until it comes to a divorce – then it suddenly becomes crucial. The things spouses used to share no longer feel secure, and while some people may be lucky enough to have amicable separations, all too often trust is gone and parties can’t rely on a mutual respect for privacy.
Take the list you and your client put together of everything that makes up your client’s digital life and start changing passwords or creating new accounts if the previous accounts were shared. Most people use the same password for multiple accounts, so it is easier for spouses to gain access if they so desire. There’s also a chance that your opponent knows how your client comes up with passwords, so the safest bet is to use a password generator to create new, unguessable passwords and keep track of them. There are free versions of these programs that are highly effective.
If your client insists on keeping email accounts and simply changing passwords, make sure there are no hidden settings your client is unaware of for forwarding communications. In addition to passwords, clients should change their security questions on accounts that require them with answers the spouse will not know. If an account offers a way to recover passwords, make sure the recovery isn’t sent to a spouse’s email or phone. As daunting as it sounds, it’s really a matter of revisiting everything your client has ever logged into – from Amazon to bank accounts toNetflix to Zappos.
Home security may even be at risk with wireless cameras storing data in the cloud, smart thermostats, alarm systems and the plethora of smart home devices available, such as door locks, garage doors, and lightbulbs.
Children’s devices present a particularly tricky challenge. If a child has a wireless device, it’s likely tied to your client’s network, which means a spouse can access that network through the child’s phone if he or she really wants to. Even children’s PlayStation accounts can allow spouses to make unauthorized purchases at your client’s expense. A difficult decision needs to be made regarding whether children should have multiple accounts or be allowed to take devices with them when they visit the other parent. Whether the risk is worth it will depend on the individual circumstances of each divorce.
The Potential for Privacy Breaches During Divorce
Breaches of privacy make messy divorces even more complicated and cause divorce costs to skyrocket. In today’s digital era, the potential for privacy breaches is greater than ever. When initiating any divorce matter, it’s critical to address digital assets up-front to protect your client’s privacy and make the proceedings go as smoothly as possible.
Lance Fogarty is the CEO of Harbinger, a Protegga Company, and has 30 years of experience in information technology, data center design and management, ethical hacking, computer forensics, and e-discovery. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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