Husband gets private investigator to plant spyware

SINGAPORE - A nurse who filed for divorce was shocked when her technician husband filed a counter claim accusing her of having an affair.

Grace (not her real name), 42, had decided on divorce after putting up with years of her husband coming home drunk, and getting verbally abusive.

Her lawyer, Ms Gloria James-Civetta, said the husband produced in court e-mail that Grace had sent to the man and photographs of the two together.

Grace, who denied the relationship, said: "I was so surprised that he had those materials because we slept separately after our marriage turned rocky, and my computer was in my room."

She found out during mediation that her husband had hired a private investigator, who made at least two visits to their five-room flat in Ang Mo Kio to plant spyware in her computer while she was at work.

The bug enabled him to receive a copy of every e-mail she sent and retrieve information stored in the desktop.

Ms James-Civetta objected to the use of this evidence in court. The e-mail and photos were not allowed to be admitted, as her husband failed to tell the court how he had obtained the information.

Grace was granted a divorce in October last year on the grounds of her husband's unreasonable behaviour.

"While this is a simpler case where the couple are simply fighting over the grounds of divorce to save face, the stakes could be much higher if assets or custody of children is involved," said Ms James-Civetta.

"That is why some spouses may turn desperate and resort to illegal ways of gaining the upper hand."

Snooping in divorce cases goes high-tech

Couples involved in bitter break-ups are increasingly resorting to illegal snooping to obtain incriminating information against their spouses, lawyers say.

Already, most of the evidence used in divorce cases these days comes from high-tech devices like mobile phones and computers. To get the upper hand, some spouses hire computer experts to hack into e-mail accounts or plant spyware in laptops and smartphones.

"In the past, it was the traditional documents and letters, but now, with technology and social media, as many as eight in 10 cases involve computer-generated evidence," said family lawyer Rajan Chettiar.

Earlier this month, High Court Judge Quentin Loh asked the Attorney-General's Chambers to investigate allegations that lawyers had advised a woman client to hire a hacker to get into her husband's laptop.

He said the court took "a very dim view of solicitors who sanction, let alone encourage, their clients' involvement in such illicit activities as hacking".

The number of non-Muslim divorces hit 7,525 last year, the second-highest annual figure on record.

Lawyer Gloria James-Civetta told The Sunday Times that she has handled about six cases so far this year in which her clients fell prey to hacking. She used to encounter only one or two such cases a year in the past.

This year, she also refused to represent five prospective clients who presented illegally obtained information about their spouses' affairs or assets.

Increasingly, clients are also asking lawyers how to hire hackers, or how to get their spouses to delete material obtained through underhanded means.

Family lawyer Abdul Rahman said he has fielded nearly a third more such inquiries this year.

Under the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act, a person can be fined or jailed for accessing a computer to retrieve data or programs without permission.

It is a crime to hack into someone's computer regardless of whether the other party has suffered any harm.

However, there may be grey areas.

"If the wife has previously given her husband her password to her mobile phone or if he happens to see something by chance when she leaves it around, does it count as hacking?" asked lawyer Lee Terk Yang.

When a client presents evidence against her spouse, some lawyers accept it.

"I am satisfied with taking the information at face value instead of questioning the clients on whether they got it illegally," said Mr Lee.

Others feel they ought to probe deeper.

Mr Koh Tien Hua, who co-heads Harry Elias Partnership's family and matrimonial law practice, said he would ask his clients if the accessed smartphone, laptop or other devices belong to them.

"If they bought it and used it most of the time, or if it is a shared computer, it should not be considered as trespassing," he said.

Ms James-Civetta said that if she suspected the other party was using illegally obtained information against her client, she would object in court or try to prove it was retrieved inappropriately.

She felt it would be helpful to have guidelines for dealing with evidence obtained illegally, such as those in place in countries such as Britain.

Others said raising public awareness that such behaviour is illegal and relying on lawyers to do the right thing were enough.

jantai@sph.com.sg


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