Federal Wiretap Laws Don't Apply To E-Mail Messages, Court Rules


When everything is working right, an e-mail message appears to zip instantaneously from the sender to the recipient's inbox. But in reality, most messages make several momentary stops as they are processed by various computers en route to their destination.

Those short stops may make no difference to the users, but they make an enormous difference to the privacy that e-mail is accorded under federal law.

Last week a federal appeals court in Boston ruled that federal wiretap laws do not apply to e-mail messages if they are stored, even for a millisecond, on the computers of the Internet providers that process them - meaning that it can be legal for the government or others to read such messages without a court order.

The ruling was a surprise to many people, because in 1986 Congress specifically amended the wiretap laws to incorporate new technologies like e-mail. Some argue that the ruling's implications could affect emerging applications like Internet-based phone calls and Gmail, Google's new e-mail service, which shows advertising based on the content of a subscriber's e-mail messages.

"The court has eviscerated the protections that Congress established back in the 1980's," said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group.

But other experts argue that the Boston case will have little practical effect. The outcry, said Stuart Baker, a privacy lawyer with Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, is "much ado about nothing."

Mr. Baker pointed out that even under the broadest interpretation of the law, Congress made it easier for prosecutors and lawyers in civil cases to read other people's e-mail messages than to listen to their phone calls. The wiretap law - which requires prosecutors to prove their need for a wiretap and forbids civil litigants from ever using them - applies to e-mail messages only when they are in transit.

But in a 1986 law, Congress created a second category, called stored communication, for messages that had been delivered to recipients' inboxes but not yet read. That law, the Stored Communications Act, grants significant protection to e-mail messages, but does not go as far as the wiretap law: it lets prosecutors have access to stored messages with a search warrant, while imposing stricter requirements on parties in civil suits.

Interestingly, messages that have been read but remain on the Internet provider's computer system have very little protection. Prosecutors can typically gain access to an opened e-mail message with a simple subpoena rather than a search warrant. Similarly, lawyers in civil cases, including divorces, can subpoena opened e-mail messages.

The case in Boston involved an online bookseller, now called Alibris. In 1998, the company offered e-mail accounts to book dealers and, hoping to gain market advantage, secretly copied messages they received from Amazon.com. In 1999, Alibris and one employee pleaded guilty to criminal wiretapping charges.

But a supervisor, Bradford C. Councilman, fought the charges, saying he did not know about the scheme. He also moved to have the case dismissed on the ground that the wiretapping law did not apply. He argued that because the messages had been on the hard drive of Alibris's computer while they were being processed for delivery, they counted as stored communication. The wiretap law bans a company from monitoring the communications of its customers, except in a few cases. But it does not ban a company from reading customers' stored communications.

"Congress recognized that any time you store communication, there is an inherent loss of privacy," said Mr. Councilman's lawyer, Andrew Good of Good & Cormier in Boston.

In 2003, a federal district court in Boston agreed with Mr. Councilman's interpretation of the wiretap law and dismissed the case. Last week, the First Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-to-1 decision, affirmed that decision.

Because most major Internet providers have explicit policies against reading their customers' e-mail messages, the ruling would seem to have little effect on most people.

But this year Google is testing a service called Gmail, which electronically scans the content of the e-mail messages its customers receive and then displays related ads. Privacy groups have argued that the service is intrusive, and some have claimed it violates wiretap laws. The Councilman decision, if it stands, could undercut that argument.

Federal prosecutors, who often argue that wiretap restrictions do not apply in government investigations, were in the somewhat surprising position of arguing that those same laws should apply to Mr. Councilman's conduct. A spokesman for the United States attorney's office in Boston said the department had not decided whether to appeal.

Mr. Baker said that another federal appeals court ruling, in San Francisco, is already making it hard for prosecutors to retrieve e-mail that has been read and remains on an Internet provider's system.

In that case, Theofel v. Farey-Jones, a small Internet provider responded to a subpoena by giving a lawyer copies of 339 e-mail messages received by two of its customers.

The customers claimed the subpoena was so broad it violated the wiretap and stored communication laws. A district court agreed the subpoenas were too broad, but ruled they were within the law. The plaintiffs appealed, and the Justice Department filed a friend of the court brief arguing that the Stored Communications Act should not apply.

In February, the appeals court ruled that e-mail stored on the computer server of an Internet provider is indeed covered by the Stored Communications Act, even after it has been read. The court noted that the act refers both to messages before they are delivered and to backup copies kept by the Internet provider. "An obvious purpose for storing a message on an I.S.P.'s server after delivery," the court wrote, " is to provide a second copy of the message in the event that the user needs to download it again - if, for example, the message is accidentally erased from the user's own computer."

Calling e-mail "stored communication" does not necessarily reduce privacy protections for most e-mail users. While the Councilman ruling would limit the applicability of wiretap laws to e-mail, it appears to apply to a very small number of potential cases. The Theofel decision, by contrast, by defining more e-mail as "stored communications," is restricting access to e-mail in a wide range of cases in the Ninth Circuit, and could have a far greater effect on privacy if courts in the rest of the country follow that ruling.

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