Besides criminalized illegal interception of communication as it occurs, federal law prohibits unauthorized access to stored communications. Under 18 U.S.C. ¤ 2701, it is illegal to intentionally gain access or exceed authorized access to a facility that provides an electronic communication service, such as an Internet provider that handles e-mail. The law spells out two main offenses:
- Accessing the service without authorization or exceeding authorization
- Obtaining, altering, or preventing proper access to the service’s stored communications
Minimum penalties include fines and prison sentences of six months. However, if the offense is committed for purposes of commercial advantage, malicious destruction or damage, or private commercial gain, prison sentences may range from one to two years.