There is no denying that identity theft is a common crime. Nationally, over 8 million people were victimized by it last year. Although that is 3 million fewer than in 2009, it's still a lot of people.
Identity theft can take many forms. It ranges from charging up stolen credit cards to using someone's personal information to set up new accounts in order to obtain credit and buy cars or other big-ticket items.
But is it really identity theft to gain access to someone's Facebook account, using a password provided by the account holder? In a recent California case, In Re Rolando S., an appellate court decided that it is.
Section 530.5 of the California Penal Code
The case involved a juvenile male who sent an unsolicited text message to a female, asking for her email password. He then used her password to gain access to her Facebook account. Once he had signed into Facebook, he used her account to post various sexually inappropriate messages on other people's walls. He also changed her profile information in sexually inappropriate ways.
The court found that this conduct violated California statue 530.5 of the California Penal Code, concerning "willfully obtaining personal information and using it for an unlawful purpose." Rolando S. has been sentenced to an indeterminate term of 90 days to a year in juvenile lockup, followed by probation.
The implications of the case for future identity theft cases are by no means clear. Suppose, for example, that someone leaves his or her Facebook page open on a public computer, such as at a coffee shop. Would it constitute identity theft to look at what's there and make alterations?
Evolving Online Identities
More broadly, the Rolando S. case raises questions about how the criminal law will relate to improper conduct in the huge, ever-expanding online world that social media platforms have ushered in. Facebook alone numbers perhaps 700 million users and claims to be adding more every day.
But even the sheer numbers don't tell the full story. Facebook and other social media sites have fundamentally changed the way millions of people share their lives. Pictures get posted and become instantly available with the click of a mouse. And once posted, information can be archived indefinitely, rather than simply going away.
How, then, can the crime of identity theft, rooted as it is in financial fraud, be made to apply to this crazy house of mirrors that is the social media world?