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Federal Court Ruling: Your E-mail is Protected by the Fourth Amendment

In a decision ruled only yesterday, the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has stated that e-mail should be treated like other private forms of communication when it comes to search and seizure.  That is, the authorities have no more right to ask an internet service provider to turn over your e-mail records than they do to ask the post office to give them your physical mail, ask a phone service provider to tap your phones, or to enter your house without permission.  In every case, they’ve got to get a warrant.

From the decision:

It only stands to reason that, if government agents compel an ISP to surrender the contents of a subscriber’s emails, those agents have thereby conducted a Fourth Amendment search, which necessitates compliance with the warrant requirement.

This would mark the first time that a court at the federal level has ruled that e-mail falls under the right of privacy amendment.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that

Current federal law–in particular, the Stored Communications Act–allows the government to secretly obtain emails without a warrant in many situations.

The full decision can be found here (in PDF), and actually contains some interesting historical tidbits on the last few times that the legal system has had to bring brand new forms of communication like, you know, telephones, underneath the wings of our venerable bill of rights.

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