E-Mail

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E-Mail

Electronic mail, or e-mail, developed as part of the revolution in high-tech communications during the mid 1980s. Although statistics about the number of e-mail users is often difficult to compute, the total number of person-to-person e-mails delivered each day has been estimated at more than ten billion in North America and 16 billion worldwide. Faster and cheaper than traditional mail, this correspondence is commonly sent over office networks, through many national services, and across the Internet.

E-mail is less secure than traditional mail, even though federal law protects e-mail from unauthorized tampering and interception. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), Pub. L. No. 99-508, 100 Stat. 1848, third parties are forbidden to read private e-mail. However, a loophole in the ECPA that allows employers to read their workers' e-mail has proven especially controversial. It has provoked several lawsuits and has produced legislative and extralegal proposals to increase e-mail privacy.

Congress intended to increase privacy by passing the ECPA. Lawmakers took note of increasingly popular communications devices that were readily susceptible to eavesdropping—cellular telephones, pagers, satellite dishes, and e-mail. The law updated existing federal criminal codes in order to qualify these emerging technologies for constitutional protection under the Fourth Amendment. In the case of e-mail, Congress gave it most of the protection already accorded by law to traditional mail. Just as postal employees may not divulge information about private mail to third parties, neither may e-mail services. The law provides criminal and civil penalties for violators: In cases of third-party interception, it establishes fines of up to $5,000 and prison sentences of up to six months. In cases of industrial espionage—where privacy is invaded for purposes of commercial advantage, malicious destruction, or private commercial gain—it establishes fines of up to $250,000 and prison sentences of up to one year.

Commentators have noted that cases involving employers reading their employees' e-mails tend to favor the employers, especially where the employer owns the equipment that stores the e-mail. Many companies also provide written policies regarding the ownership of stored e-mail messages, indicating whether the employer considers stored e-mail to be the property of the employer.

E-mail raises additional issues of privacy in the context of communications between an attorney and client. Because communications between attorney and client must remain confidential, questions have arisen about whether sending unencrypted e-mail messages by attorneys to clients could pose ethical problems. In 1999, the American Bar Association issued its opinion that the mere use of unencrypted messages does not pose ethical problems.

E-mail raises some evidentiary problems as well. Commentators have noted that the origin of some e-mail messages might be difficult to authenticate, while messages might constitute Hearsay. Nevertheless, many courts have admitted e-mail messages into evidence. To protect against disclosure of private or sensitive information, some attorneys advise employers and employees to exercise caution with e-mail, as it can be subpoenaed. Some experts have advised users to delete their e-mail regularly, and even to avoid saving it in the first place. Still others advocate the use of encryption software, which scrambles messages and makes them unreadable without a digital password.

Further readings

"Harris, Micalyn S. 2002. "Is Email Privacy an Oxymoron? Meeting the Challenge of Formulating a Company Email Policy." Saint John's Journal of Legal Commentary 553.

"Joseph, Gregory P. 2003. "Internet and Email Evidence." ALI-ABA Course of Study.

Pearlstein, Mark W. and Jonathan D. Twombly. 2002. "Cell Phones, Email, and Confidential Communications: Protecting Your Client's Confidences." Boston Bar Journal 20.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
"My dearest Blanche, I have seen Sir Patrick, and he has given me your message. I will set your mind at ease about me as soon as I can.
I will write a message that you may take to them, and they will follow you.
If he were less generous he would have sent you a halter rather than this message which I bear."
Please burn the cipher message, which can now be of no use to you.
Don Quixote drew himself up briskly in his saddle, fixed himself in his stirrups, settled his visor, gave Rocinante the spur, and with an easy bearing advanced to kiss the hands of the duchess, who, having sent to summon the duke her husband, told him while Don Quixote was approaching all about the message; and as both of them had read the First Part of this history, and from it were aware of Don Quixote's crazy turn, they awaited him with the greatest delight and anxiety to make his acquaintance, meaning to fall in with his humour and agree with everything he said, and, so long as he stayed with them, to treat him as a knight-errant, with all the ceremonies usual in the books of chivalry they had read, for they themselves were very fond of them.
"You know what the withholding of this message you carry may mean," Mr.
The real Banking-house by Temple Bar, the real business of the past day, the real strong rooms, the real express sent after him, and the real message returned, would all be there.
Granet glanced eagerly back at the original message. It consisted of a few perfectly harmless sentences concerning various rates of exchange.
Now Dingaan winced, for he knew well that he himself and one Mopo had stabbed the Black One, but he thought that this outland chief had not heard the tale, so he said no more of the message.
It carried messages from the first day; and more, it raised the whole telephone business to a higher level.
"Don't say anything to him about this second message, Mrs.
"May I send one of the servants with a message? I may as well put an end to Mr.