How Private Are Your Emails From The Government?
from the legal-questions dept
Slashdot has a post up claiming that the government has the right to read your emails, which is a little misleading. However, the story does raise some interesting issues. While the article there suggests that the government has an open right to snoop through your emails, what the actual case is about is the standard that the government can use before it can look at emails you have that are stored on someone else’s servers (such as Yahoo or Google). The specific case involves a seller of “male enhancement” products who is being sued by the government. They viewed some of his emails that were stored Yahoo’s mail servers. They didn’t, as the original post implies, have free access to them, but required a court order directed at the companies hosting the servers to see them. The argument, then, is over whether or not a court order is enough, or if the government should have been required to get a search warrant, which would require a higher level of proof and support before a court would grant permission.
If you take it a step back, what this really becomes is an argument over who owns your emails. If you believe that you own your own emails once they’re in your inbox, then like traditional mail, it would seem that a search warrant is the right standard. However, if you believe that whoever is storing the content owns the rights to access it, then, the court order should be enough. This is made that much more complicated by the fact that a piece of email traveling around a network could leave traces or copies on many different servers at times. Where this gets really tricky is that if the “court order” standard is accepted, that puts an awful lot of data at risk of being easily targeted by the government. With the rise of “hosted” services for things like enterprise software, email, photos and even documents and spreadsheets — all of that information may now be much more easily viewed by government authorities. It still requires a court order, but as long as they’re on someone else’s server, it appears that a search warrant may not be needed. One of the reasons that many companies have shied away from software as service vendors was fear that by putting their data on other servers it would be more open to hackers or competitors. Apparently, it’s also more open to government officials, based on the current ruling in this court case.