District Judge Concludes E-mail Not Protected by Fourth Amendment (But See Correction)

The case is In re United States, — F.Supp.2d —-, 2009 WL 3416240 (D.Or. 2009), by District Judge Mosman. The issue in the case is whether the government must notify a person when the government obtains a search warrant to access the contents of the person’s e-mail account. Judge Mosman concludes that Rule 41 and 18 U.S.C. 2703(a) require the notice to be served on the ISP, not the account holder, as a statutory matter. He then rules that there is no constitutional requirement of notice to the account holder because the Fourth Amendment does not apply to the e-mails under the third-party doctrine. [CORRECTION: SEE BOTTOM OF POST] Here’s the relevant analysis:

The Fourth Amendment protects our homes from unreasonable searches and seizures, requiring that, absent special circumstances, the government obtain a search warrant based on probable cause before entering. This is strong privacy protection for homes and the items within them in the physical world.

When a person uses the Internet, however, the user’s actions are no longer in his or her physical home; in fact he or she is not truly acting in private space at all. The user is generally accessing the Internet with a network account and computer storage owned by an ISP like Comcast or NetZero. All materials stored online, whether they are e-mails or remotely stored documents, are physically stored on servers owned by an ISP. When we send an e-mail or instant message from the comfort of our own homes to a friend across town the message travels from our computer to computers owned by a third party, the ISP, before being delivered to the intended recipient. Thus, “private” information is actually being held by third-party private companies.

This feature of the Internet has profound implications for how the Fourth Amendment protects Internet communications-if it protects them at all. The law here remains unclear and commentators have noted that there are several reasons that the Fourth Amendment’s privacy protections for the home may not apply to our “virtual homes” online. First, it is uncertain whether we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in information sent through or stored by ISPs because the Fourth Amendment does not protect information revealed to third parties. [Citation to work of bald academic deleted.]

Here, the defendants voluntarily conveyed to the ISPs and exposed to the ISP’s employees in the ordinary course of business the contents of their e-mails. The Google privacy policy explicitly states that Google will share personal information of its subscribers when it has “a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to … satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.” Google Privacy Policy, http:// www.google.com/privacypolicy.html (last visited May 13, 2009). The court understands that other ISPs have similar privacy policies. See, e.g., Microsoft Online Privacy Statement, http://privacy.microsoft.com/en-us/fullnotice.mspx (last visited May 13, 2009) (stating that personal information may be shared to “comply with the law or respond to lawful requests or legal process”); AOL Network Privacy Policy, http://about.aol.com/aolnetwork/aol_pp (last visited May 13, 2009) (“The contents of your online communications, as well as other information about you as an AOL Network user, may be accessed and disclosed in response to legal process (for example, a court order, search warrant or subpoena); [and] in other circumstances in which AOL believes the AOL Network is being used in the commission of a crime….”). Thus subscribers are, or should be, aware that their personal information and the contents of their online communications are accessible to the ISP and its employees and can be shared with the government under the appropriate circumstances. Much of the reluctance to apply traditional notions of third party disclosure to the e-mail context seems to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the lack of privacy we all have in our e-mails. Some people seem to think that they are as private as letters, phone calls, or journal entries. The blunt fact is, they are not.

As I have blogged before, I disagree: I think e-mails are protected under the Fourth Amendment despite the third-party doctrine for reasons explained in my forthcoming Stanford Law Review article Applying the Fourth Amendment to the Internet: A General Approach (click on the link and then press the download button to download a draft of the article). Still, I thought the decision was worth noting given the importance of the issue and the still-unsettled state of the caselaw.

CORRECTION: In the course of re-reading the opinion to post it, I recognized that I was misreading a key part of the opinion. As I read it now, Judge Mosman does not conclude that e-mails are not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Rather, he assumes for the sake of argument that the e-mails are protected (see bottom of page 12), but then concludes that the third party context negates an argument for Fourth Amendment notice to the subscribers. I missed this because the reasoning closely resembles the argument for saying that the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply at all, and I didn’t read the earlier section closely enough. That’s obviously a much narrower position, and I apologize for misunderstanding it the first time in the quick skim I gave it.