The cyber communication and email has a pivotal role in the lives of Americans. It has been found that 87% of the youth of today go online (Weiss, 2005), representing 21 million youth. Emails increase the speed of multiple, simultaneous interaction. The advances in technology that provide opportunities to reach out to new sources of knowledge and cultural experiences are not without challenge. Should Justin Ellsworth’s parents been allowed to access to his email? Many people feel emails systems should be treated to the same privacy and security requirements as the postal letters. Email is typically secured by a password system to the email provider and potentially one to the computer system used to connect to the internet source. Postal letters are delivered to a mailbox and are protected by the metal container and the federal law protecting mail.
Emails are electronic and are not physically delivered and stored by physical storage devices. Whose property does the emails belong to? These questions make us revisit examples of how businesses handle email. In her book, Who Owns Information, Anne Wells Branscomb devotes an entire chapter to Who Owns Email. Branscomb begins with the story of a female administrator who was horrified to find her boss reading printouts of employee email. She lost her job for her protest. She tried to sue her employer, but there were no laws guaranteeing the confidentiality of email at the workplace, and she lost her case. The question of ethics is different from looking at laws and their enforcement, for even though something is legal it can be unethical, and if something is illegal it can be ethical. Our current laws do not conform to the definition of ethics.
Email privacy is derived from the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and is governed by the “reasonable expectation of privacy” standard. Unfortunately, given the open nature of email mentioned above (passing through several computers and stored at multiple locations), the expectation of privacy may be less for email, especially email at work, than for other forms of communication. Emails are also governed by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Patriot Act. Although the ECPA originally set up protections (such as a warrant requirement) to protect email, those protections have been weakened in many instances by the Patriot Act. Even where the protections remain under the ECPA, emails lose their status as a protected communication in 180 days, which means a warrant is no longer necessary and your emails can be accessed by a simple subpoena.
Government employees have even less privacy than the little privacy a typical employee in the private sector may have. Under various public records acts and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the public can gain access to almost anything a government employee writes down. Also, due to the nature of their job, courts are typically unwilling to find that government employees had a reasonable right to privacy in the first place. Unlike your email at work, emailing from home is more likely to grant you a reasonable expectation of privacy, but even then, it’s not very difficult for prying eyes to gain access to your emails.
Because your emails are stored locally, at your ISP, and on the receiving end, there are multiple points that hackers or law enforcement can gain access to. While it may be difficult for law enforcement to legally gain access to your home computer and local copies of your emails, it is substantially less difficult for them to get your ISP to turn over your emails. Conclusion: The utilitarian’s stance is the parents should be given access to the emails because it potentially maximizes the overall happiness. They feel it is the right thing to do regardless of contractual obligations. The deontological thinking is that the individual that signed up for the email account requested privacy and the provider has an obligation to maintain security.
Weiss, D. L. (2005, August 11). Youth & the Internet. Focus on the Family.
Branscomb, A.W. (1994) Who Owns Information? New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Website: Email Privacy Concerns, 2012 FindLaw, Thomson Reuters