Federal Court Ruling Boosts Laws About Email Privacy
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In a Federal ruling this week, personal email privacy laws received a shot in the arm, as the Court ruled that laws about email privacy preclude the government from demanding access to an individual’s email from their ISP without notice to the individual, unless they have a warrant based on probable cause.

In the government’s case against Steven Warshak and his Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, which marketed a “natural male enhancement” product called Enzyte using web- and Internet-based marketing, the Court found that “e-mail users maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of their e-mails.”


At issue was a clause of the Stored Communications Act (SCA) which generally holds that the government must either give a person prior notice, or have a search warrant, before it can seize their email. The clause at issue is an exception which states that prior notice is not necessary if the seizure of the stored email is pursuant to a criminal investigation, which the investigation against Warshak was (Warshack is charged with criminally defrauding people out of as much as $100 million.) However, the Court found that the exception outlined in the SCA requires a court order for the seizure. In the Warshak case the government had neither a warrant nor a court order, yet insisted that the ISP from which they seized Warshak’s email not notify Warshak of the seizure.

In the unanimous ruling, the Court, led by Judge Boyce Martin, stated that “It goes without saying that like the telephone earlier in our history, e-mail is an ever-increasing mode of private communication, and protecting shared communications through this medium is as important to Fourth Amendment principles today as protecting telephone conversations has been in past.”

The government argued that email is screened without the recipient or sender’s knowledge all the time when it is filtered for spam, screened for illegal adult material, and the like.

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The Court quickly dispatched this argument, however, holding that “The reasonable expectation of privacy of an e-mail user goes to the content of the e-mail message. The fact that a computer scans millions of e-mails for signs of pornography or a virus does not invade an individual’s content-based privacy interest in the e-mails and has little bearing on his expectation of privacy in the content. In fact, these screening processes are analogous to the post office screening packages for evidence of drugs or explosives, which does not expose the content of written documents enclosed in the packages.”

Kevin Bankston an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, cheered the decision, explaining that “Email users expect that their Hotmail and Gmail inboxes are just as private as their postal mail and their telephone calls. The government tried to get around this common-sense conclusion, but the Constitution applies online as well as offline, as the court correctly found. That means that the government can’t secretly seize your emails without a warrant.”

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4 thoughts on “Federal Court Ruling Boosts Laws About Email Privacy
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  1. What if people are hacking my phone, reading my emails and sending me fake emails to confuse and wastemy time and space? How best can we get them to the authorities and what can I do?

  2. An IP address from Nigeria stole my email and sent everyone one of my contacts a message stating I took a sudden trip to Mexico and left my phone at the airport and that could they send me money western union. How embarrassing on the phone for how’s with yahoo to state that these people have a program that allows them to steal emails from yahoo and gets into all our contacts removes the. From our email then proceeds to embarrass use like idiots this has to stop and the people doing it need to pay for there crime I have people calling me asking if I’m ok. And the other they keep harassing people I really don’t know. This is an outrage and our government and the courts need to do something

  3. I found I could not get to my e-mail.The guy ask everybody on my contact list for money. I set up a new e-mail account and baited him and he took it hook line and sinker.Should I ask him for access so I can recover years of pictures and data in exchange for not prosicuting. Nobody will help me with this anyway, and i feel overwhelmed over the data lost, and all my contacts getting mail asking for money.W hen will somebody help us with this problem. How has jurisdiction here?

  4. Recently, my father-n-law attempted to set up an email account through our local email/internet provider (Fairpoint Communications). When he contacted their support, they informed him that he already had an email set up and gave him NOT ONLY my personal email address but also my email PASSWORD! Now, this is a small town. My father-n-law did not have to jump through hurdles to obtain this information, how easy would it be for ANYONE who knows my home address (and/or phone number) and my email address to gain my password…My trust in my email provider/administrator should be just that…TRUST…and that is NOT what I have in them, now. I’m seeking any laws pertaining to email/password privacy…please advise!

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