Improving Privacy Protections on the Internet

Congress is currently poised to create a number of restrictions on the ability of the government to search email and other digital content. While it is unclear what form such legislation would take, there is a bipartisan consensus that something needs to be done for two reasons: (a) United States citizens need to have more definable privacy protections in their electronic communications and (b) American companies are finding it difficult to compete globally because foreign companies are reluctant to buy American software and other applications that may provide a means for the government to spy on them.

Much of this debate was spurred by a 2010 case brought down by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. That case U.S. v. Warshak, 631 F.3d 266 (6th Cir. 2010). That case dealt with the issue of whether the government’s review of private email could constitute an unconstitutional search and seizure. The Sixth Circuit found that it did. As the court wrote,

Warshak argues that the government’s warrantless, ex parte seizure of approximately 27,000 of his private emails constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.12 The government counters that, even if government agents violated the Fourth Amendment in obtaining the emails, they relied in good faith on the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq., a statute that allows the government to obtain certain electronic communications without procuring a warrant. The government also argues that any hypothetical Fourth Amendment violation was harmless. We find that the government did violate Warshak’s Fourth Amendment rights by compelling his Internet Service Provider (“ISP”) to turn over the contents of his emails. However, we agree that agents relied on the SCA in good faith, and therefore hold that reversal is unwarranted.

This case is notable because after it was decided, a number of internet service providers began to require search warrants for email.  It is entirely possible that the standard for obtaining emails may be further refined once the current legislation reaches the president’s desk.

© 2014 Nissenbaum Law Group, LLC