Feeds

Email protected by Fourth Amendment, says appeals court

Landmark privacy shocker

Intelligent flash storage arrays

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. ®

Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile

More from The Register

next story
Mighty Blighty broadbanders beg: Let us lay cable in BT's, er, ducts
Complain to Ofcom that telco has 'effective monopoly'
Download alert: Nearly ALL top 100 Android, iOS paid apps hacked
Attack of the Clones? Yeah, but much, much scarier – report
Broadband sellers in the UK are UP TO no good, says Which?
Speedy network claims only apply to 10% of customers
Yahoo! blames! MONSTER! email! OUTAGE! on! CUT! CABLE! bungle!
Weekend woe for BT as telco struggles to restore service
Fujitsu CTO: We'll be 3D-printing tech execs in 15 years
Fleshy techie disses network neutrality, helmet-less motorcyclists
Facebook, working on Facebook at Work, works on Facebook. At Work
You don't want your cat or drunk pics at the office
Soz, web devs: Google snatches its Wallet off the table
Killing off web service in 3 months... but app-happy bonkers are fine
prev story

Whitepapers

Why cloud backup?
Combining the latest advancements in disk-based backup with secure, integrated, cloud technologies offer organizations fast and assured recovery of their critical enterprise data.
Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
How to determine if cloud backup is right for your servers
Two key factors, technical feasibility and TCO economics, that backup and IT operations managers should consider when assessing cloud backup.
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 and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet
Explores the current state of website security and the contributions Symantec is making to help organizations protect critical data and build trust with customers.