Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Court Rules Email Is Protected by Fourth Amendment...

As this Boing Boing article describes, "the US 6th district court has restored the power of 4th Amendment protection to emails stored on a remote host". This is a great triumph for privacy rights, and as the inevitable appeal to a higher court proceeds, we can only hope that other courts come to similar rulings as well.

In a nutshell, for years the government has been acquiring people's emails, without a warrant, citing the Stored Communications Act (SCA) and arguing that while they cannot read people's mail or search their homes, they can read their emails if they are located on a remote server. Really, this was a ridiculous legal loophole since almost every individual who has an email account uses a remote server - such as Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, MSN, AOL, etc.

So the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a coalition of civil liberties groups filed suit arguing that users have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in their stored email - and now the federal District Court has agreed. The ruling states that the SCA violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution by allowing secret, warrantless searches and seizures.

Opponents to this ruling will harp on how the Court is undercutting the War on Terror and that such tools have become necessary. However, simply requiring a warrant is not something that will greatly impede homeland security processes - with just cause, the government can still acquire whatever email records it wants. All this ruling does is put the classification of email on par with that of postal mail, and that, as the EFF puts it, "the Fourth Amendment applies online just as strongly as it does offline."
  

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