We’ve become a nation of email-using business owners. That’s why it’s such a good thing that a U.S. Federal Appeals court today found that businesses have an expectation of privacy over their emails and the government can’t seize them from an ISP without a warrant.
Consider that a recent survey by SurePayroll, an online payroll service, says:
- Over 80% of small business owners believe e-mail is a key to the success of their business.
- Even more interesting, 62% believe email is just as effective or more effective than in-person or phone communication. Yep, that’s right — a majority think email is just as good or better than actually talking.
- Oh, and how many times do you check your email each day? Over one-fourth of us check email more than 20 times a day. In a typical work day, that works out to about once every half hour.
- More than 50% of those surveyed say they spend about one to two hours reading or writing e-mail each day.
Are you getting the picture that we small business owners are conducting more and more of our business through email?
With email so central to what we do and how we operate, it’s a good thing that a Federal Appeals Court declared that businesses have an expectation of privacy with regard to their emails.
Now what does the Federal court case mean? The case applied to the Federal government seizing email records without a warrant from a business’s ISP. The Court said you can’t do that — people expect emails to be private. Therefore, the government needs to get a warrant before getting emails from your ISP. An Associated Press story quotes the judges’ decision:
“The district court correctly determined that e-mail users maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy in the content of their e-mails,” Judge Boyce Martin said in a 3-0 ruling.
“It goes without saying that like the telephone earlier in our history, e-mail is an ever-increasing mode of private communication, and protecting shared communications through this medium is as important to Fourth Amendment principles today as protecting telephone conversations has been in past,” the appeals court said.
This is an important case and a good decision. After all, we’re using email as a substitute for other communications in business — communications that we also expect to be private.
What remains to be seen is whether the court decision will change anything as between an employer and employee. Today, many employee handbook policies state that employers own your work email and that you as the employee have no expectation of privacy. That’s different from the government seizing a company’s emails without a warrant. Whether today’s court decision will be applied to give employees more rights over their email versus their employers, remains to be seen. We’ll wait for some of the law bloggers to tell us what it means for employees and whether business owners can monitor employee emails.