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Privacy For Your Work Related Email --- Don't Count On It.

May 16, 2007


Military Court Finds E-Mail Messages On Marine Corps Computers Are Private

A Marine Corps officer has an expectation of privacy in her e-mail messages sent and stored in a government computer system, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has found.

The e-mails were from the officer's account stored on an unclassified government computer system on which she had authorized limited personal use. The e-mails were obtained as part of an investigation of her for drug use. A motion to suppress the emails was denied at trial because the military judge found the officer had no reasonable expectation of privacy for her e-mail account.

A log-on banner for the email account stated that the government had the right to "monitor" the computer system. However, the appeals court found that the right to monitor the computer system did not allow the government "to engage in law enforcement intrusions by examining the contents of particular e-mails in a manner unrelated to maintenance of the e-mail system."

The appellate court found that the actual policies and practices of the government "reaffirm rather than reduce the expectations regarding privacy on office computers. These policies, among other things, require individual users to have passwords known only to themselves and to change their passwords periodically to ensure privacy. Additionally, these policies limit outside network access to the network administrator and describe very limited conditions under which he would monitor the network for unauthorized use."

The court said while the government can intrude into an employee's computer or e-mail accounts for work-related reasons, "searches conducted for the primary purpose of obtaining evidence of illegal conduct require probable cause." Since the search in this case went beyond work-related misconduct, probable cause was required. "Because there was no command authorization, the evidence should have been suppressed," the court concluded.