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Saturday, July 03, 2004

We can read your mail...

Via Tom's Hardware Guide I came across this chilling legal decision: E-mail is not private, says US court
A US appeals court has ruled that the vice-president of an internet service provider cannot be charged with violating federal wiretapping laws for snooping on e-mail sent to his customers, a decision that will give ISPs and other e-mail providers free rein to spy on e-mail, privacy advocates said.

The US Court of Appeals has affirmed a district court ruling dismissing a criminal wiretap charge against Bradford Councilman, who was vice-president of Interloc, a rare book listing service, in 1998. Interloc, since acquired by another company, provided an e-mail service to book dealers who were its customers, and in January 1998, Councilman told employees to write computer code to read incoming e-mail messages from rival book dealer

Councilman was charged with violating the US Wiretap Act, which prohibits private citizens from intercepting communications, but appeals court Judge Juan Torruella wrote that US law does not prohibit ISPs and other e-mail providers from reading e-mail residing on their servers. The Wiretap Act gives wire and oral communication more protection against interception of stored communications than it does for electronic communication, Torruella added.

"We believe that the language of the [wiretap] statute makes clear that congress meant to give lesser protection to electronic communications than wire and oral communications," Torruella wrote. "Moreover, at this juncture, much of the protection may have been eviscerated by the realities of modern technology. We observe, as most courts have, that the language may be out of step with the technological realities of computer crimes. However, it is not the province of this court to graft meaning onto the statute where congress has spoken plainly."

Privacy advocates including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation questioned the appeals court ruling. By ruling that an e-mail was in storage instead of transit when it stopped for a "millisecond" on Interloc's servers, the appeals court has opened up e-mail to easier spying by law enforcement or ISPs, said Lara Flint, staff counsel for the CDT.(Go read the rest of the article)

What strikes me is that this not only eliminates electronic privacy but opens up the door to commercialization of your private communication.