What are Email Privacy Laws?

Nick Oza

Email privacy laws govern the privacy of data transmitted through email. Privacy on the Internet and through email is a growing concern, and email privacy laws are a part of that. Email security depends on the email service provider and how it is set up. As a general legal matter, personal email should be private. Most people trust that their emails are not being read, but when people feel that their right to keep their emails private is being violated, email privacy laws take effect.

Many people have concerns about privacy issues related to email and the Internet.
Many people have concerns about privacy issues related to email and the Internet.

Certain legal principles concerning electronic privacy have been instituted in the constitutions or laws of many countries. Sometimes known as secrecy of correspondence laws, they guarantee that the contents of sealed letters, telephone conversations and mobile and electronic communications will not be intercepted by government authorities or any third party. Email privacy is thus not comprised, allowing people to freely communicate through email. An exception to these laws is when suspicion is aroused of criminal activity.

Privacy laws regarding business email are different than laws for personal email.
Privacy laws regarding business email are different than laws for personal email.

The United States Constitution does not guarantee any such privacy of email correspondence. For this reason, congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in 1986, setting provisions for the privacy rights of people who use computers or other electronic devices. The act makes it a crime for someone to read or disclose the contents of an electronic communication, including emails. In essence, such email privacy laws protect people from any illicit activity taking place when it comes to their email.

Privacy laws concerning workplace email are a little different. In the U.S., for example, there is an exception to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in the workplace. A corporate employer might have company-wide rules permitting the company to read email sent or received through the company's email service. Most states have supported the employer's right to look at an employee's workplace email. Canada has similar laws enacted relating to workplace email.

Nevertheless, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, although the employer might be able to monitor an employee's work email, it still might be held liable for intercepting the email. This occurs if the employer intercepting the email uses the email knowing that it was an illegal interception. If an employer has policies that lead employees to think that email communication through the company's email service is for private purposes and not for business purposes only, then the rights of the employer might be limited when it comes to monitoring emails.

Seeking to ensure that emails remain confidential, however, does not require much effort on part of the sender or recipient. Email privacy laws offer protection for people in general. In addition, choosing a quality email service provider and remaining vigilant helps deter illegal activity when one's email privacy is concerned.

Email privacy laws protect personal information.
Email privacy laws protect personal information.

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Discussion Comments


@Terrificli -- I am not sure whether an ISP can inspect your email or even if there is a way for anyone to find out if your ISP is looking at your email. After all, you are using their servers and one should assume that an ISP would have access to all information moving along its network.

But I wouldn't worry about it. Back around 1999, I visited with the owner of a small, local ISP and asked him if his company kept up with what people were doing online. He said that was almost impossible because so much information was flowing that keeping track of it all was well night impossible. That was 15 years ago when the Internet was a much smaller place. How much harder is it for an ISP to keep tabs on its customers today?


A bigger question is how privacy laws could be applied against an Internet service provider (ISP). Can my ISP intercept and read my emails when it sees fit? Should I even expect my emails to be concealed from my ISP if I am sending them through servers owned by that ISP?

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