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Email gets the same rights as postal mail

A victory for the EFF
Wed Dec 15 2010, 22:59

US GOVERNMENT AGENCIES might need a search warrant before seizing and searching emails after a US appeals court ruled that emails have the same Fourth Amendment rights as other forms of private communications.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on US v. Warshack came to what is being called a landmark decision following briefs filed by civil liberties groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In the briefs, the court was urged that the seizure of email without a warrant represented a violation of the Fourth Amendment rights that apply to postal mail and telephone calls.

From the court's ruling it seems that common sense has prevailed. The court wrote, "It follows that email requires strong protection under the Fourth Amendment, otherwise the Fourth Amendment would prove an ineffective guardian of private communication, an essential purpose it has long been recognized to serve." It concluded that any search of emails would constitute a Fourth Amendment search, which requires a valid search warrant.

For years the EFF has worked tirelessly to support civil liberties, but its work here has wide reaching implications for businesses and consumers. Not only does US v. Warshack give email communications legitimacy matching that of postal mail, it allows US email service providers such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and countless Internet service providers to offer their services and have case law to back up claims of data privacy.

While the ruling might be good news for email providers on one hand, questions will be asked whether firms such as Google will be legally permitted to scan emails and generate targeted advertising. After all, the same law forbids postal agencies from opening up postal mail and sticking a flyer inside the envelope.

Given that the US laws protecting postal mail have been set in stone for over a hundred years, for email to get similar rights should mean users can trust that their electronic correspondence will not searched by US government agencies without due process.

Unfortunately, it probably doesn't really mean that, because the US reportedly has been wiretapping all Internet traffic without warrants for almost 10 years. But it offers some hope that in the future US citizens' emails won't be usable in US courts of law without warrants. µ


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