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South Carolina Supreme Court rules that webmail isn't protected by 1986 privacy law

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Confusion over an outdated privacy law leaves webmail users with questionable legal protection.

legal (shutterstock)
legal (shutterstock)

Last Wednesday, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that one woman's deliberate (and successful) attempts to break into her husband's Yahoo Mail account to prove his infidelity do not violate the Stored Communications Act (SCA) of 1986. While the justices were quick to establish that they do not condone her behavior, they found that webmail services like Gmail and cannot be classified as "electronic storage," and thus are not granted protection under the SCA.

The SCA defines electronic storage as:

"(A) any temporary, intermediate storage of a wire or electronic communication incidental to the electronic transmission thereof; and (B) any storage of such communication by an electronic communication service for the purposes of backup protection of such communication."

Where lawmakers can't seem to agree is the definition of a "backup" as it pertains to webmail. The South Carolina Supreme Court has concluded that a backup necessarily implies that a second copy of a file exists, whereas the 2004 case of Theofel v. Farey-Jones defined any email that has been read and left on the server as a backup, as Ars Technica reports. Since the email is certainly not being held in temporary storage by the ISP, and it wasn't accessed directly from the plaintiff's hard drive, it's unclear exactly how the Stored Communications Act can be applied to webmail services.

The uncertain legal protection of sensitive documents stored in the cloud doesn't bode well for individuals and businesses that rely on webmail for daily operations. Thus far regulators haven't come to an agreement on how to update the SCA to protect modern advances in internet technology, and while a complete overhaul to the statute may be the only way forward, there are no immediate plans for addressing its deficiencies.