Feeds

Email protected by Fourth Amendment, says appeals court

Landmark privacy shocker

Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet

Police must obtain a warrant before accessing emails stored by internet service providers, a federal appeals court has ruled in a landmark decision that also struck down part of a 1986 law that allows warrantless interception of some digital data.

The unanimous decision (PDF), from a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected prosecutors' arguments that there was no reasonable expectation that email is private when it's stored for more than 180 days. Such reasoning is antiquated today, when email conveys people's most guarded personal and business secrets and often lives on servers for years. As such, email should enjoy protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, the judges 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 ruling stated. “Email is the technological scion of tangible mail, and it plays an indispensable part in the Information Age.”

The judges went on to declare part of the Stored Communications Act unconstitutional because it allowed the government to compel ISPs to turn over customer email without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause.

Civil liberties advocates hailed the ruling.

“This is a very big deal,” Freedom to Tinker's Paul Ohm blogged. “It marks the first time a federal court of appeals has extended the Fourth Amendment to email with such care and detail. This is the opinion privacy activists and many legal scholars, myself included, have been waiting and calling for, for more than a decade. It may someday be seen as a watershed moment in the extension of our Constitutional rights to the internet.”

The ruling came in the criminal case of one Steven Warshak, a penis-enhancement marketer who was convicted of multiple fraud charges. In the course of the investigation, prosecutors accessed thousands of Warshak's emails without a warrant.

Tuesday's appeals ruling sent the case back to the lower court for a new sentence but upheld the conviction itself because police relied “in good faith” on their interpretation of the surveillance law. Warshak's 25-year-prison sentence was tossed on issues unrelated to the email seizure.

It's the latest in a string of victories for privacy advocates and comes on the heels of rulings that said the Fourth Amendment protects cellphone tower data and GPS tracking. ®

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

More from The Register

next story
Brit telcos warn Scots that voting Yes could lead to HEFTY bills
BT and Co: Independence vote likely to mean 'increased costs'
Phones 4u slips into administration after EE cuts ties with Brit mobe retailer
More than 5,500 jobs could be axed if rescue mission fails
New 'Cosmos' browser surfs the net by TXT alone
No data plan? No WiFi? No worries ... except sluggish download speed
Radio hams can encrypt, in emergencies, says Ofcom
Consultation promises new spectrum and hints at relaxed licence conditions
Turnbull: NBN won't turn your town into Silicon Valley
'People have been brainwashed to believe that their world will be changed forever if they get FTTP'
Blockbuster book lays out the first 20 years of the Smartphone Wars
Symbian's David Wood bares all. Not for the faint hearted
Bonking with Apple has POUNDED mobe operators' wallets
... into submission. Weve squeals, ditches payment plans
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
WIN a very cool portable ZX Spectrum
Win a one-off portable Spectrum built by legendary hardware hacker Ben Heck
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.
Protecting users from Firesheep and other Sidejacking attacks with SSL
Discussing the vulnerabilities inherent in Wi-Fi networks, and how using TLS/SSL for your entire site will assure security.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.