Email privacy strikeout suspended

Wiretapping on demand


Privacy groups have succeeded in persuading a First Circuit Appeals Court to reopen a case with some nasty unintended consequences for email users. A June ruling inadvertently opened the door for spooks and Feds to snoop on email without a court order, but that's now been suspended, pending the hearing in December.

In US vs Councilman a court decided that when email providers made a copy of your email - even for a few milliseconds - the US Wiretap Act doesn't apply. The defendent, an email service provider who sought to examine the contents for commercial advantage - like Google with its new Gmail service, which scans the email so it can display context-based advertisements - was acquitted. The Wiretap Act required law enforcement officers to get a warrant to snoop on email. Since this was considered to apply only to electrons in transit, all of a sudden, they didn't have to.

"Extending the court's disturbing approach, an entire surveillance system wouldn't be considered interception if it were built into local mail processing," internet researcher Seth Finkelstein told us.

The Courts this week admitted as much when it said it needed to re-hear the arguments.

"It may well be that the protections of the Wiretap Act have been eviscerated as technology advances," noted the panel, which examined a brief filed by public interest groups including the Electronic Freedom Foundation and the American Library Association.

The First Circuit encompasses Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, but the case is being watched far beyond the Eastern seaboard. One of the arguments thrown back at privacy groups concerned about Google's "creepy" Gmail service was that people who didn't like the T&Cs should use another service. But this can only work for the sender: recipients would be obliged to firewall out any correspondents who uses a Gmail account, or in this case, anyone who lives in Maine or Massachusetts.

Writing here in June, the former head of the DoJ's computer crime division, Mark Rasch, warned against a parallel consequence raised by one of Googles' favorite assertions - that computers are making the decisions, not humans, removing it of responsibility.

"If a computer programmed by people learns the contents of a communication, and takes action based on what it learns, it invades privacy", he wrote.

"Google may also argue that its computers do not learn the contents of the message while in transmission but only contemporaneously with the recipient, making wiretap law inapplicable. That argument, while technically accurate, is somewhat fallacious. If taken to its logical extreme, electronic communications are never intercepted in transmission. The packets must be stopped to be read. Fundamentally, we should treat automated searches of contents as what they are: tools used by humans to find out more about what humans are doing, and provide that information to other humans."

Two bills were introduced in Congress to make peeking at temporarily stored email illegal, but with a potentially lucrative advertising market up for grabs, the subject is sure to feature more prominently.

Thomas Pynchon last year described the internet as "a development that promises social control on a scale those quaint old 20th-century tyrants with their goofy moustaches could only dream about." So all the better you tick those consent boxes. ®

Related stories

Close the email wiretap loophole
Google's Gmail: spook heaven?
The battle for email privacy
America - a nation of corporate email snoops


Other stories you might like

  • Tesla driver charged with vehicular manslaughter after deadly Autopilot crash

    Prosecution seems to be first of its kind in America

    A Tesla driver has seemingly become the first person in the US to be charged with vehicular manslaughter for a deadly crash in which the vehicle's Autopilot mode was engaged.

    According to the cops, the driver exited a highway in his Tesla Model S, ran a red light, and smashed into a Honda Civic at an intersection in Gardena, Los Angeles County, in late 2019. A man and woman in the second car were killed. The Tesla driver and a passenger survived and were taken to hospital.

    Prosecutors in California charged Kevin George Aziz Riad, 27, in October last year though details of the case are only just emerging, according to AP on Tuesday. Riad, a limousine service driver, is facing two counts of vehicular manslaughter, and is free on bail after pleading not guilty.

    Continue reading
  • AMD returns to smartphone graphics with new Samsung chip for your pocket computer

    We're back in black

    AMD's GPU technology is returning to mobile handsets with Samsung's Exynos 2200 system-on-chip, which was announced on Tuesday.

    The Exynos 2200 processor, fabricated using a 4nm process, has Armv9 CPU cores and the oddly named Xclipse GPU, which is an adaptation of AMD's RDNA 2 mainstream GPU architecture.

    AMD was in the handheld GPU market until 2009, when it sold the Imageon GPU and handheld business for $65m to Qualcomm, which turned the tech into the Adreno GPU for its Snapdragon family. AMD's Imageon processors were used in devices from Motorola, Panasonic, Palm and others making Windows Mobile handsets.

    Continue reading
  • Big shock: Guy who fled political violence and became rich in tech now struggles to care about political violence

    'I recognize that I come across as lacking empathy,' billionaire VC admits

    Billionaire tech investor and ex-Facebook senior executive Chamath Palihapitiya was publicly blasted after he said nobody really cares about the reported human rights abuse of Uyghur Muslims in China.

    The blunt comments were made during the latest episode of All-In, a podcast in which Palihapitiya chats to investors and entrepreneurs Jason Calacanis, David Sacks, and David Friedberg about technology.

    The group were debating the Biden administration’s response to what's said to be China's crackdown of Uyghur Muslims when Palihapitiya interrupted and said: “Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay? ... I’m telling you a very hard ugly truth, okay? Of all the things that I care about … yes, it is below my line.”

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022