Can the government read your private e-mails?

The Court's Ruling

June 18's ruling began with a fraud investigation involving a man named Steven Warshak. He is the owner and president of Berkeley Premium Neutraceuticals, a company that sells herbal supplements like Enzyte. Warshak was being investigated for committing acts of fraud amounting to $100 million or more. When he learned that government investigators were reading his private e-mails, Warshak sued the government to stop them, claiming their actions were unconstitutional. The case began in federal court in the Southern District of Ohio, which ruled in Warshak's favor and said that the government was not allowed to use the SCA to read stored e-mails. The government appealed to the 6th Circuit Court, which issued the ruling on June 18.

In its ruling, the appeals court compared the state of e-mail today to the early days of the telephone. Like the early telephone, "e-mail is an ever-increasing mode of private communication" and it deserves the protections against "unreasonable searches and seizures" provided by the Fourth Amendment [Source: AP]. The court also compared e-mails to a sealed letter, which carry with them a certain expectation of privacy.

The 6th Circuit Court's decision was celebrated by organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which, along with the ACLU, the Center for Democracy & Technology and law professors Susan Freiwald and Patricia Bellia, filed amicus briefs on Warshak's behalf. Legal experts and privacy advocates consider this a very important ruling that could have far-reaching implications for how electronic communication is treated under the law.

Internet privacy and electronics rights are issues that are still developing and being defined through court rulings like this one. With our society's rapid pace of technological growth, these issues will continue to change based on changing standards of behavior, court rulings and future government legislation. In the meantime, Internet privacy has become closely tied to other civil liberties and privacy issues, as well as issues about keeping the Internet "open" and free from government interference. If any similarly important court decisions are issued in the future, we'll be sure to write about them here.

As for the government's case against Steven Warshak, it's unclear how the June 18 ruling may affect the fraud investigation. Evidence gleaned from stored e-mails will likely be inadmissible in a criminal trial. That is, of course, assuming that the ruling holds up. The government, which said it is considering the results of the court's decision, can appeal the ruling to the full Sixth Circuit Court or to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For more information about e-mail, Internet privacy and related topics, check out the links below.

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