How private are your personal emails?

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - It was a big story during the last election cycle.

A young man hacked into Governor Sarah Palin's account and posted her emails.  He was convicted of a misdemeanor charge.

Now we're hearing the exact opposite decision was made in a South Carolina courtroom and it is leaving security and privacy experts concerned that this sets a bad example for other would be email hackers.

Below you'll find our Cyber Expert, Theresa Payton's, explanation of what happened:

We all have some semblance of expecting our personal email correspondence stored by email providers like Google and Yahoo is safe from unauthorized access.  We realize hackers might get in but in our minds, that's breaking the law and if they were found they would be punished.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that such data in not protected by the Stored Communications Act (SCA).

To the layman, snooping into someone's emails, is considered wrong.  To us, this appears to be black and white but it clearly is not. Until we get laws that have caught up with the digital age, we will continue to have court case decisions that will be hard to predict or explain.


Husband, Lee Jennings, was confronted by his wife about an affair.  Once he admitted to the affair, she worked with another person to guess his password for his email account and read his email messages.  Many of his messages were printed and turned over to her divorce attorney in building a case against him.  Lee sued his wife and ultimately lost in the SC Supreme Court.


1.  LAWS ARE OLD:  Many of the laws on the books are old.  Some have been "retro fitted" to add digital

2.  LACK OF PRECEDENCE:  Courts go by laws and also follow case precedents.  In this case the court reviewed the SCA law and said it did not fit this particular case.

3.  LACK OF PREDICTABILITY:   Many expected the husband to win this case but the SC Supreme Court Justices ruled that since his emails were not created for the purpose of backing up his data, the emails are not covered by the SCA

4.  WHAT IS THE SCA?   Stored Communications Act.  This covers the protection of electronic storage.  However, the SC Supreme Court does not see your email inbox or folders as "storage" even though the SCA says "any temporary, intermediate storage of a wire or electronic communication incidental to the electronic transmission thereof" .

The Justices ruled that since the correspondence in the plaintiff's emails were not created for the purpose of backing up the data, the information does not warrant protection from intrusion under the Act.

5.  COMMENTS FROM THE SC SUPREME COURT:  Chief Justice Jean Toal noted that an item can only be considered protected by the SCA if it was both "unopened and kept as backup protection". She also wrote, "Because the emails were already opened by Jennings when they were retrieved and printed out by Broome, they reached their final destination and fell outside the definition of electronic storage under the statute."


FINFISHER is a malware that targest Android phones through the Android operating system.  They infect your phone through infected links.  Once your phone is infected, Finfiser steals your address book of all your contacts and your phone number.  Contact your phone vendor if you think you have been infected.


To read the decision of the court, click here.

For background on the SCA, click here.

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