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EFF Files Brief in Email Privacy Case

September 3, 2004

EFF Files Brief in Email Privacy Case

Councilman Case Should Be Heard Before Full Court

Boston, MA - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in a case that will have a profound effect on the privacy of Internet communications.

The brief argues that US v. Councilman, previously decided by a panel of First Circuit judges, should be reheard by the entire First Circuit Court of Appeals. In the earlier panel decision, the court ruled that it does not violate criminal wiretap laws when an email service provider monitors the content of users' incoming messages without their consent.

The defendant in the case, Bradford Councilman, is a bookseller who offered email service to his customers. Councilman configured the email processing software so that all incoming email sent from Amazon.com, a competitor, was secretly copied and sent to his personal email account before it arrived in the intended recipient's mailbox. The court ruled that this is legal. As the panel itself stated in the ruling, "it may well be that the protections of the Wiretap Act have been eviscerated as technology advances."

Co-authored by Orin Kerr and Peter Swire, law professors specializing in Internet privacy issues, the amicus brief is co-signed by EFF, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and the American Library Association (ALA). Amici argue that a rehearing is necessary because the Councilman decision disrupts the traditional understanding of Internet surveillance laws, raising significant constitutional questions under the Fourth Amendment.

"This court decision has repercussions far beyond a single criminal prosecution," said Kevin Bankston, EFF attorney and Equal Justice Works/Bruce J. Ennis fellow. "The panel decision effectively rewrites the field of Internet surveillance law in ways that Congress never intended. If private service providers like Councilman can avoid the Wiretap Act's criminal prohibition on interception by a technicality in the way the messages are transmitted, it follows that the government will also be able to monitor our communications without having to ask a judge for a wiretap order. If the decision is allowed to stand, it will eliminate the Wiretap Act as the primary curb against private and government snooping on the Internet."

Links:

Amicus brief in US v. Councilman

Wired: E-Mail Snooping Ruled Permissible

Washington Post: Court Limits Privacy of E-Mail Messages

Contacts:

Kevin Bankston
EFF Attorney, Equal Justice Works/Bruce J. Ennis fellow
bankston@eff.org

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