Feeds

Email protected by Fourth Amendment, says appeals court

Landmark privacy shocker

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

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. ®

Security for virtualized datacentres

More from The Register

next story
Net neutrality protestors slam the brakes on their OWN websites
Sites link up to protest slow lanes by bogging down pages
Blockbuster book lays out the first 20 years of the Smartphone Wars
Symbian's David Wood bares all. Not for the faint hearted
Drag queens: Oh, don't be so bitchy, Facebook! Let us use our stage names
Handbags at dawn over free content ad network's ID policy
Who us, SHARE infrastructure? Networks reject gov proposal
Execs pour scorn on 'national roaming' outline – report
Net neutrality fans' joy as '2.3 million email' flood hits US Congress
FCC invites opinions in CSV format, after Slowdown day 'success'
'Serious flaws in the Vertigan report' says broadband boffin
Report 'fails reality test' , is 'simply wrong' and offers ''convenient' justification for FTTN says Rod Tucker
This flashlight app requires: Your contacts list, identity, access to your camera...
Who us, dodgy? Vast majority of mobile apps fail privacy test
Apple Watch will CONQUER smartwatch world – analysts
After Applelocalypse, other wristputers will get stuck in
prev story

Whitepapers

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.
Intelligent flash storage arrays
Tegile Intelligent Storage Arrays with IntelliFlash helps IT boost storage utilization and effciency while delivering unmatched storage savings and performance.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
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.