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In California, A borrowed a cell phone from B, which A used for months. Then, A returned the phone without deleting the text messages and even gave B the password to unlock the phone.

Is it legal for B (the owner of the phone) to read A's text messages? Is it legal for B to share A's text messages with others?

A never told B that they could or couldn't read or share their text messages, but they did give them the password to unlock the phone, so maybe permission was inferred.

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  • Laws often vary around the world, so which jurisdiction (country, province, state, principality etc) does this relate to?
    – user35069
    Sep 13, 2021 at 8:12
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    Please note that this website is for educational purposes and thus can not provide legal advise for individuals. I therefore fictionalized the question so it does not get closed. Remember to take legal advise from anonymous strangers on the Internet with a grain of salt. Even if you assume they know what they are talking about: You might have left out some important information in your question which changes everything. So Law Stack Exchange is no replacement for talking to a real attorney.
    – Philipp
    Sep 13, 2021 at 9:03
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    @Philipp Almost everything you mention in your comment is already stated in the disclaimer on the upper right of LawSE posts. Sep 13, 2021 at 12:45
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    @Philipp "RBSDCA is obviously not. Otherwise they would not have written the question that way." Using first person does not imply that the OP seeks legal advice in preparation for potential litigation. In fact, his initial post ended with "I really don't care. I'm just wondering." His subsequent edit indicates that the removal of those words was for brevity, not that he changed his mind in regard to the purpose of his question. Sep 13, 2021 at 12:55
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    @RBSDCA I removed the "libel" tag because the matter has nothing to do with owner's publication [in writing] of defamatory falsehoods about the borrower. Sep 13, 2021 at 13:08

2 Answers 2

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If you want to keep things secret, don’t tell people

It is 100% legal for me to read your text messages, letters and emails, listen to your voicemail, watch your videos and look at your pictures and unless there is an expectation of privacy.

Your mobile phone would normally be considered private. However, if you give it to me and tell me the password then that is no different from handing me a photo album, a DVD or your email password. You have made it clear that you do not expect privacy from me.

If you gave it to me for a specific purpose and clearly told me “don’t read the messages” then the messages remain private and I might be breaking the law if I look at them. This could be unauthorised access of a computer which is a crime in some jurisdictions. It could also be the tort of breach of privacy but that’s always a tricky one to prove. And, if I told someone else, it could be the tort of breach of confidence but that generally requires a special relationship of confidence.

The law does expect that you will take reasonable measures to protect your own privacy - if you strip in the front room with the curtains open, that’s not a private act.

As an aside, never hand your unlocked phone to a police officer - you just gave them permission to search it.

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Yes. By the fact that A did not take steps to protect the messages from B and used B's phone, A has no reasonable expectation of privacy from B and B is free to read and share those messages with anyone B sees fit.

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