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Email – It’s Fast, Easy, And Now Unprotected From Unlawful Searches

It’s official – we’re now taking our legal cues on privacy from China and South Korea.  Not literally of course; though like every American court we can still look to another country’s legal statutes and cases for inspiration… though that’s going away from the point of my post today.

You remember email, right?  That thing you’ve been using as your main source of written communication since the last decade?  The major form of correspondence that has surpassed old-fashioned snail mail and which is relied upon by everyone from business titans to celebrities, the president, and your aging grandmother (who floods your inbox with those funny grammatically incorrect cat pictures)?  Yeah, that email – it’s no longer protected against searches from the police.

privacy email“No, that can’t be right!  Right?  Email?  They are no different than letters you received in the mail; how can they not be afforded the same protection?” Well, apparently if you think like that you’ve been preempted by a federal judge, my friend.

Specifically, this ruling comes down from and Oregon Federal Judge Michael Mosman (I almost typed Michael Madsen; if he gave the ruling I might’ve been less outraged).  Judge Mosman argues that unlike regular snail mail which is handled by postal employees, e-mail should not be afforded the same protection against unlawful searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment because when an email is sent, it goes through various Internet service providers.  By traveling through these different providers, each email leaves a digital image of itself with each ISP.  And apparently this fact is enough to distinguish email from regular land mail because by leaving a digital copy of itself, emails are in essence open to the ISP to read and monitor and therefore people who send emails cannot expect to have the same level of privacy as when one sends a regular piece of mail through the post office.  Judge Mosman’s full opinion can be read here (please note that the link is to a PDF).

Sound mental?  Yeah, well it should.  Judge Mosman seems to hang his ruling on the notion that because emails aren’t sealed in envelopes like a written letters, people should expect it to be read.  Now to be fair, police would still need a warrant to search through your email.  However, they’ll just need to submit the warrant to an ISP that has your emails to get access to them, thereby completely bypassing you and giving you no notice before invading your private emails.

Now on one hand, Judge Mosman’s argument makes some sense.  Junk mail in the form of post cards and brochures are almost never sealed and the courts have generally viewed these as forms of advertisement and therefore not protected under the Fourth Amendment since it’s argued that junk mail is meant to be seen by as many people as possible.  However, this is also where Judge Mosman’s argument breaks down because private emails aren’t advertisements, but are actual private communications between parties.

“But Andrew, what about the whole issue of emails leaving digital copies of themselves on ISPs and not being sealed like normal letters?”  Well let me answer that question, too, and thank you for asking so kindly.  Though emails are not physical sealed, they are often digitally encrypted to prevent prying eyes from seeing its contents.  Therefore, an analogy can be drawn between sealing and encryption since they both show the sender’s intent to keep their communication private.  Furthermore, like postal workers who we trust not to open our mail, similarly we trust our ISPs not to read our emails.

Anyway, all my ranting is meaningless until someone challenges Judge Mosman’s ruling or the legislature passes a law that gives emails the same protection against unlawful searches and seizures that physical mail enjoys.

So get started people, write your senators and congressmen, just don’t email them – for now.

Ken LaMance

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