updated 04:30 pm EST, Tue December 14, 2010
Court says e-mail privacy guarded by 4th Amendment
A US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that e-mail was legally protected by the Fourth Amendment. It determined in a 3-0 vote that e-mail was similar to traditional communication and thus that the government still needed a search warrant to intercept and read e-mail. Users still had a reasonable expectation of privacy online, the court said.
"Given the fundamental similarities between email and traditional forms of communication, it would defy common sense to afford emails lesser Fourth Amendment protection," the decision published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation read. "It follows that email requires strong protection under the Fourth Amendment; otherwise the Fourth Amendment would prove an ineffective guardian of private communication, an essential purpose it has long been recognized to serve... [T]he police may not storm the post office and intercept a letter, and they are likewise forbidden from using the phone system to make a clandestine recording of a telephone call--unless they get a warrant, that is."
The verdict effectively overturns the conviction of the appellant, Stephen Warshak, by rendering the evidence invalid. Department of Justice officials had asked Warshak's e-mail provider to monitor and intercept his e-mail even before it was sent. The EFF and advocates had filed a brief claiming that this amounted to an illegal wiretap. DOJ agents had used the Stored Communications Act to justify the move, but the rule by definition only applied to e-mail that had already been stored locally, not any message.
Applying the Fourth Amendment sets the first legal precedent of its sort and could prevent the government from any further attempts to snoop civilian e-mail without a warrant.