You read it in the news all the time – Britons being constantly targeted by cybercriminals losing millions and millions of pounds to the fraudsters.

We always think of cybercriminals as being technically-literate gangs of thieves sitting behind their desks far away from where we are. But the truth is that cybercrime is lot closer to us than most people suspect.

What are the most commonly occurring instances of cybercrime where people aren’t sure whether they’re on the right side of the law or not?

Is it OK to read someone else’s emails without their permission?

No. This is an offense under section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act. Whether you guess that person’s password or you see it written down on a piece of paper and then use it, if you do not have that person’s permission to access their email account, this is an offence called “authorised access”.

If you read any unopened email in that person’s account, you will have made an “unauthorised modification” to the database that holds that person’s email, an offence under Section 2. If you take any of the information contained in their email for yourself, that will be considered as “theft”.

Please note that it does not matter what relationship that person has to you. The law sees no difference between hacking into a stranger’s email account and hacking into your spouse’s or civil partner’s emails. Read this account of a 6 month jail sentence handed to Gordon Ramsey’s father-in-law for unauthorised access to the celebrity chef’s company’s email account.

Is it OK to log into someone’s social media accounts without their permission?

No. As above, this is an offense under section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act and, if you change anything on that person’s social media profile without their permission, this is an offence under Section 2 of the Computer Misuse Act. Read this account of a 21-year-old Briton being imprisoned for 12 months for hacking the Facebook account of an unidentified individual in the USA.

Is it OK to try to access a hidden part of a website that requires a username and password?

No. Again, this is an offense under section 1 of the Computer Misuse Act, even if your attempt to access the website was unsuccessful. Read this account of a man jailed for hacking into websites belonging to a hospital and airport.

Is it OK to try to sell or use set-top boxes which allow someone to see sports and movies without paying a subscription to the rights holders here in the UK?

No. In the past few years, boxes which allow you to view Sky Sports and Sky Movies channels without even having a Sky box have mushroomed in popularity. This has not gone unnoticed by the trade bodies who represent broadcasters like Sky, movie studios, and sports leagues.

Under the new Digital Economy bill, sellers of UK boxes could face long sentences – up to 10 years. Users of the boxes too could have legal action brought against them.

I’m a lifelong fan of a band and, together with other fans, we share files of rare unreleased studio recordings and concert recordings of the band. I have bought everything they’ve ever put out. Is that OK?

No. Although the band and its record company will be grateful to you and the other people on your sharing platform that you have bought everything your favourite band has ever released, they will not be happy with sharing their rare recordings.

Anything your favourite band produces, whether it’s a released or not, is owned by them and their record company. The minute that it has been produced, the recording is also protected by copyright.

It’s easy to get caught out

And more and more people are.

Have you been accused of some or all of the following?

  • unauthorised access to a computer or electronic device
  • illegal file sharing
  • hacking into someone’s email or social media account(s)
  • streaming, downloading, or uploading copyrighted material or selling devices that allow others to access streamed or downloadable copyright material

If you have, you should seek legal advice from Ashmans Solicitors as soon as possible.