I'm the webmaster of a forum and we are having trouble with a user and we suspect he uses privates messages to do illegal business (not illicit, but illegal according to the forum rules).

Are their any legal implications to reading the privates messages of that user in order for us to get proof that he is indeed doing business against our rules?

The server is located in Quebec, Canada.

  • If it's your server it's your data. You are paying for the server and it's resources. Users are only paying you to provide a service on your server. You can update your privacy policy, call RCMP, or speak with your company attorney. If you have every right to cancel their account, delete their data you have every right to view it on you server. It's no different than an employee in your company using company computers for illegal activity. You can monitor them in your workplace.
    – Anagio
    Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 12:00

2 Answers 2


It's potentially illegal and also morally wrong.

Basically, if you would be unhappy for someone to read your private messages then it's wrong (morally) and I suspect it would be considered criminal under one of these Canadian Laws (technically the crime would be committed at the location of the server):-

What does your website's terms of service say about this?

If the user agreed to a TOS that said no messages are private and administrators may read them if they suspect harassment or illegal activity is being undertaken or something similar then you'd be in a different legal space entirely.

The question really is did the user reasonably expect the message to be private based on the agreement they made with the site owner when signing up. E.g. if no agreement was made and the feature was called private messages, then any user would expect privacy.

The force in Law of TOS is questionable and I would still seek legal advice before proceeding further. The question is did the user have a reasonable expectation of privacy?


IMHO unless this guy is costing you money, stealing from you or harassing you then I would ban him from the site and forget about him. Why consider potentially committing a crime over some suspicions?

If you have direct evidence contact the police in his local vicinity and report the matter, if they obtain a warrant to access the mails then you're in the clear.

The police are starting to take hacking seriously, even if they don't understand it, so don't take the risk.

Please note: I'm not a lawyer in any country, this isn't legal advice it's opinion.

  • The server owner has authorized use of his own computer (server). Libertarian lay interpretations can seriously break down when a lawyer is consulted and the law read as written and cross-referenced with precedential law cases. Consult an attorney within the jurisdiction that has experience with internet law. Commented Jan 23, 2014 at 4:23

If you do not want to read the messages but you still want get more information then you could do some SQL commands on the database and see if he is using some suspicious words. E.g. if he would try to deal with drugs you could do something like this:

FROM forum_messages
WHERE user_id = hisId AND message_text LIKE '%drugs%';

(Of course you have to adapted the query to your database.)

Like this you did not read his messages but you still get information about potential illegal activities.

  • I'm... confused by this answer. Where does this stand, legally speaking?
    – Alpha
    Commented Feb 19, 2012 at 6:44
  • Well, I can not speak for every country but in most countries it is no problem at all. You only count the number of messages with this word in it. You still don't know how and why he used the words. So you are not reading the messages at all. But it can give an indication if the words are totally out of context of the website. Commented Feb 19, 2012 at 12:14
  • @RaffaelLuthiger - this would still be a crime under most criminal codes, much of the law around this has it's root in mail interception and wireless interception laws. The issue is not the mechanism or the amount of the message that was read, it's that something a user reasonably expected to be private was accessed when it shouldn't have been. Commented Feb 20, 2012 at 19:25
  • 1
    @toomanyairmiles As you can see in the query it is only a COUNT(*) so all data is still staying private. So I don't think that you are right in this case. Else all the spam filter would be a legal problem too. Especially all the forum filters like e.g. Akismet. Commented Feb 21, 2012 at 23:11
  • @RaffaelLuthiger you're still accessing the content of the messages - it would still be a crime, in the same way that reading a letter through an envelope is a crime. Electronic mail uses specific policies to get around this problem - if such policies were in place then you would be ok, without them, it could be a crime. Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 12:31

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