E-Mail Interception Decision Reversed
Is e-mail in transit communications or data in storage? Seems like a basic question, but the answer matters a lot to the police. A U.S. federal Appeals Court has ruled that the interception of e-mail in temporary storage violates the federal wiretap act, reversing an earlier court opinion.
The case and associated privacy issues are summarized here. Basically, different privacy laws protect electronic communications in transit and data in storage; the former is protected much more than the latter. E-mail stored by the sender or the recipient is obviously data in storage. But what about e-mail on its way from the sender to the receiver? On the one hand, it’s obviously communications on transit. But the other side argued that it’s actually stored on various computers as it wends its way through the Internet; hence it’s data in storage.
The initial court decision in this case held that e-mail in transit is just data in storage. Judge Lipez wrote an inspired dissent in the original opinion. In the rehearing en banc (more judges), he wrote the opinion for the majority which overturned the earlier opinion.
The opinion itself is long, but well worth reading. It’s well reasoned, and reflects extraordinary understanding and attention to detail. And a great last line:
If the issue presented be “garden-variety”… this is a garden in need of a weed killer.
There’s a larger issue here, and it’s the same one that the entertainment industry used to greatly expand copyright law in cyberspace. They argued that every time a copyrighted work is moved from computer to computer, or CD-ROM to RAM, or server to client, or disk drive to video card, a “copy” is being made. This ridiculous definition of “copy” has allowed them to exert far greater legal control over how people use copyrighted works.