Is it illegal to screenshot text messages?

Is it illegal to screenshot text messages?

In the modern world, many people choose to communicate through text messages, which can be an easy way to keep in touch with friends in family.  However, this form of communication may raise questions about whether it is legal to screenshot text messages and when these screenshots can be shared.  There are differing laws between countries and states regarding the legality of keeping, sharing, and using communication from another person, which can cause many people to wonder if their actions could be illegal.  Understanding when there is a protected right in the information contained in a text message and when and how screenshots can be used is important to exist in the digital age.  This article will outline the importance of a right to privacy, examine some common scenarios that may cause issues for people with the screenshots, and discuss the legality of these scenarios as well as the morality.  The goal of this article is to help readers understand how and when they can use screenshots and text messages, and when they may need to hold onto or delete the messages.  

Right to Privacy: 

The idea of a legal issue with screenshotting text messages is strongly connected to the idea of a right to privacy.  In the United States, there is no constitutionally enumerated right to privacy, unlike the freedom of speech or religion.  However, the legal system in the United States has embraced some forms of a right to privacy, such as the right to remain free from government interference in private affairs and the right to be free from communication interceptions.  Additionally, there are laws surrounding the use of information that is gathered by the government and companies.  However, in most cases, this only protects individuals from interference from the government and its agencies and some large corporations, and the Patriot Act did lessen some restrictions to aid the government in investigating terrorism.  Because the protections are limited to the actions of governments or large corporations, there is little development surrounding the laws of private citizens using the data of others.  

In some states and other countries, there is a tort of “intrusion upon seclusion” which provides private citizens a cause of action to sue someone who wrongfully uses their information.  However, these ideas are fairly new, and many states and countries have not fully understood or fleshed out the idea.  For many of these laws, there is a requirement that the person using the information acted willingly, which has yet to be fully analyzed, but likely means that the person collected and shared the information knowing that it would harm the person.  Like other torts, this tort will restrict recovery to very specific instances, and it does not create a widespread idea of privacy for individuals against individuals.  With this in mind, it is important to understand when sharing communication and information with others, one should be aware of the potential legal implications of the action. 

Content:

To begin considering the implications of screenshots, it is first important to consider the content of the messages that are being captured.  To be clear, this conversation is involving the use of privately sent messages—online posts and discussions are already widely available and constitute a different kind of communication.  Some broad categories can help sort the content and aid in a discussion of the implications of capturing the content.  These categories include: 

  • Conversation: This is the least protected of the content that could be included in the screenshot.  This is the conversation itself that does not include any information about either party or any other type of media.  This can be planned about where to meet for drinks and when or a discussion about a school’s latest rule change.  This content can be captured in a screenshot without much of an issue.  Sharing conversations between two people could be an issue if there were private opinions or thoughts contained in the conversation and the sender did not give permission, but this is fairly rare.  
  • Personal Information: Personal information is identifying information about a person or other information that is linked to the person.  This can be as specific as their name, telephone number, or social security number, or broad information, such as location data.  This information is more protected and can bring a greater penalty in some cases if shared without consent.  
  • Protected Material: In some cases, friends may be sending copyrighted or trademarked material to each other.  Capturing this type of information in a screenshot and using it in certain ways can result in legal trouble; however, this is unlikely in a private conversation between friends or acquaintances. 

Understanding the content of the messages is the first step in understanding when there may be an issue with the screenshot.  Nest, it is important to consider the use of the screenshot to determine if there is any legal risk to sharing the information.  

Personal Use: 

The first use to consider is personal use.  People will often screenshot messages and exchanges because they made each other laugh or because the message felt good.  In this case, the message will likely be stored on the person’s phone simply to make them smile on a bad day or to share with a friend or two to show them how happy the other person made them.  While it is still smart to ask permission before sharing, this small amount of sharing or no sharing at all is not threatening a person’s safety, so it is unlikely that it will be illegal.  Purely screenshotting a conversation and keeping it for oneself is not illegal.  

Public Sharing: 

Another use to consider is publicly sharing the conversation in some way.  This can be through the use of social media, posting the screenshot online, or in print, which is less likely currently.  Taking a private conversation and putting it somewhere that a large number of people may see can surely feel like a breach of privacy.  It is a breach of trust, and it can ruin friendships or relationships when shared without consent.  However, sharing a private conversation publicly will rarely be illegal.  The times that it may be illegal are when the conversation contains personal information that is protected and the sharer did not have consent.  This can also be illegal in some cases if the share could be considered bullying.  However, in most cases, sharing a screenshot of a private conversation publicly will not be illegal, although it will often cause issues in other areas. 

Business Purposes: 

One reason that sharing a private conversation publicly could be illegal is when it contains personal information or protected material and the sharer is doing so for business purposes.  If a person shares a conversation with personal information to make a business deal or to sell a product, they may face legal trouble if the person whose information is shared did not give consent, because certain personal information is not allowed to be sold without consent.  However, this typically applies to large companies and may not apply to individuals.  Finally, if a person uses a screenshot that involves protected material like a trademarked picture or something of the sort and then uses the image for business gain.  This is an issue that may pop up in instances like Instagram influencing and social media marketing.  This would be a fairly uncommon thing, and the image would likely not be in its full form in the messages, so it will likely not be an issue.  However, it is something that users should be aware of when screenshotting and using images for gain.  

Trial: 

One of the most common ways that many people will want to use screenshots of messages will be at a trial that is most likely concerning the content of the messages.  This is becoming more common as text messages have become the way that most people communicate about their daily necessities and thoughts, but many people are confused about how to screenshot a text and use it at trial and whether there will be any repercussions for using the private conversation.  However, because texts that will be used for evidence and relate to the issues at trial, it is best to use them and admit them for consideration, and the person sharing them at trial will likely not face any legal repercussions for using them.  To use text messages at trial, the person that would like to use them should follow these steps: 

  1. Physical Copy: The first step in presenting the text at trial is to obtain a physical copy like a screenshot.  This picture should include identifying information such as the name or number that the text comes from.  If possible, the screenshot should also include a date and time stamp. 
  2. Testimony: To get the message admitted, the party wishing to submit it will need to have testimony from the recipient to assure that the text message is what the party claims it is.  They can testify about receiving it and other details surrounding the message. 
  3. Other Issues: With any evidence, the party will need to overcome any objections like hearsay.  Preparing for these objections can help overcome them easily in the trial. 

Screenshotting a text message can be a great way to keep a memory of a text that will otherwise be deleted.  However, before sharing that conversation publicly, consent should always be had to avoid ending up in a tricky legal situation.  

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