Civil liberties groups are celebrating a federal appeals court ruling to make stored e-mails more private than they used to be. The federal government must have a warrant before it can search through stored e-mails, the court said.
Government officials say they have read stored e-mails in the past, because it was too hard to get a search warrant for an e-mail while it is in transmission.
But the unanimous ruling by the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says that government searches of stored e-mail violate a citizen's reasonable expectation of privacy. Civil liberties groups are calling the decision a landmark event.
"To wiretap an email, to grab it while it's in transmission, that requires a wiretap order, sort of a super search warrant," lawyer Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said.
"It's very hard to get. So the government doesn't get those. Instead they, grab the e-mail when it is stored with the e-mail provider."
But then the government ran into a fellow named Steven Warshak. He markets herbal supplements such as something called "enzyte" — a "natural male enhancement" product.
Warshak found out he was being investigated for fraud — and that investigators had been reading through his old emails. He sued, calling the practice unconstitutional.
Monday, a three-judge panel of the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
Orin Kerr is a computer crime expert at the George Washington University Law School:
"This is a very significant case, because it's a very broad ruling," Kerr said."subject potentially to being overturned on appeal, but nonetheless, the court attempts to answer a lot of questions, and their answer for almost everything is the government needs a warrant before it can access somebody's e-mail.
A Justice Department spokesman says the ruling is being reviewed.