Earlier this year, in Quon v. Arch Wireless, the Supreme Court dodged the question of whether one has a reasonable expectation of privacy in electronic communications. Yesterday, in U.S. v. Warshak (6th Cir. 12/14/10) [pdf], the 6th Circuit answered the question, at least as it pertains to one’s commercially-provided email account.
Warshak involves the criminal convictions of the distributors of the male enhancement herbal supplement Enzyte. Some the evidence used to convict Steven Warshak came from the government’s warrantless seizure of his emails account. Although the 6th Circuit affirmed the use of the emails in Warshak’s trial, the court, for the first time, recognized that individuals enjoy an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in their commercially-stored email accounts:
Since the advent of email, the telephone call and the letter have waned in importance, and an explosion of Internet-based communication has taken place. People are now able to send sensitive and intimate information, instantaneously to friends, family, and colleagues half a world away. Lovers exchange sweet nothings, and businessmen swap ambitious plans, all with the click of a mouse button. Commerce has also taken hold in email. Online purchases are often documented in email accounts, and email is frequently used to remind patients and clients of imminent appointments. In short, “account” is an apt word for the conglomeration of stored messages that comprises an email account, as it provides an account of its owner’s life….
Email is the technological scion of tangible mail, and it plays an indispensable part in the Information Age. Over the last decade, email has become “so pervasive that some persons may consider [it] to be [an] essential means or necessary instrument[ ] for self-expression, even self-identification.” … It follows that email requires strong protection under the Fourth Amendment….
Unlike Quon, Warshak is not an employment case. Nevertheless, it provides insight into court’s views of email and personal privacy. And, it gets the issue right. Employers should continue to take heed if they pry into employees’ personal (i.e., non-employer-provided) email accounts. Courts will likely continue to err on the side of protecting employees’ privacy rights in their own personal emails, and will likely take a long, hard look at businesses that invade that privacy.