Does your email belong to you?

The Facts
Steven Warshak is an apparent no-good guy. He publicly sells “natural male enhancement” products of questionable value via TV commercials and he’s being prosecuted for it. But Warshak does seem to have the right idea about how important the issue of privacy is to US citizens.

John Reinan of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune lays out the principle issues of Warshak’s lawsuit. Warshak claims that a “search of his e-mail violated,” his 4th Amendment rights to be protected, “against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Was the government right to examine Steven Warshak’s private emails without a search warrant? Although prosecutors are appealing that decision, one US district judge has already ruled in Warshak’s favor.

Email privacy is an enormous issue. The EFF [Electronic Frontier Foundation] cautions that companies offering both internet search and email storage collect a massive amount of personal information about users. Yahoo, MSN, Google and Amazon save information about you based on the searches you make on their sites. Other personal details about you comes from scanning your private emails.

A New York Times article offers this quote from the owner of a Massachussetts PR firm. ”Privacy is critical to me. We’re losing more and more of it slowly — daily, monthly, annually. Pretty soon we’ll be so accustomed to having our privacy invaded, it will no longer feel like invasion and we’ll get used to a new way of living without privacy altogether. I’m not sure I want that. ”

Google Watch reports that Google scans the contents of all of its users emails and reserves the right to “give this information to whomever they wish.” They also caution that, “email messages lose their status as a protected communication under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act,” after only 6 months!, at which time they become the public property. And that Google discards none of your emails – not even the ones that you trash. In other words, all of your gmail ends up as publicly accessible information which may be stored indefinitely without your knowledge or consent, on Google’s internal servers.

My opinion
I don’t love criminal activity, but I also believe that the privacy rights of the great, law-abiding public merits absolute protection. It obviously would be quite easy for law officials to build cases for prosecution if they could stroll into any person’s life, log into anyone’s personal email account, and spend as much time as they wished to spend, figuring out how to use findings as evidence for prosecuting that person for criminal activity. If nothing prosecutable were found, on to the next potential candidate. This would be an easy way for law enforcers to prosecute US citizens. But, it happens that in the US, the private lives of citizens are not supposed to be opened up to inspection by people looking to call judgment down upon us, curtail our freedom of movement or speech, or inhibit our happiness.

How to Protect Yourself
Here’s a checklist in simple language of the steps to take to protect yourself against your email-plus-search provider stockpiling a big fat database file on you with intimate details about each one of your lifestyle and shopping preferences. Take steps to limit your exposure before your private life is offered for sale to the highest bidder.

More Reading
More on the subject of Google’s email privacy policy at EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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