During the 2008 presidential election there was a brief moment of outrage after a Tennessee college student broke into Sarah Palin's Yahoo e-mail account. The hacker accomplished this by correctly answering Palin's "Secret Question" with publicly accessible information he found on Wikipedia. The media quickly forgot the story, but since then, many people are wondering: what legal protection is there against people accessing my e-mail like this? Turns out there is some, but it's less black and white than you might think.
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The Electronic Communications Protection Act states its illegal to intercept or read an e-mail when it's "in transit" between the sender and the recipient. Not sure what that means? Grasping this requires a little technical knowledge about e-mail and how it works. When you hit "send," be it in Outlook or Gmail, the email is not sent straight to the person in question; instead, the email is first sent to your e-mail provider's server. From there, your e-mail is directed to the server of the recipient, if different. From that server your e-mail is finally sent to the recipient. All this can happen in a few seconds, but it is during this in-between time that your e-mail is protected by a federal law.
On your computer
Files stored on your computer or on discs in your house are protected by law from unauthorised access. This means someone who physically breaks into your house and reads your e-mail is breaking the law and someone that hacks onto your computer over the Internet is breaking the law.
In the cloud
Here's where it gets more complicated, legally. Whether you know it or not, you have data "in the cloud." If you use online e-mail services such as Yahoo, Gmail or Hotmail, your information is stored on the servers of the company that provides the email account. This means the information is not physically in your house, so it is up to your e-mail provider to protect your data. Be sure to carefully read the user agreement of your webmail service to see if you're legally protected from unauthorised access. Also know that in most cases you will have to report any unauthorised access to the company offering the services rather than the law enforcement.
Employers and government
The government and, in some cases, your employer has the legal right to review your e-mail? In the age of the Patriot Act, some government officials can access your e-mail without a warrant---a subpoena often will suffice. Depending on employment rules, your company probably has the right to review all e-mails you send from your company computer.
The law may not always protect you, so it is a good idea to protect yourself. If you keep your e-mail on your own computer, be sure to run an up-to-date firewall, antivirus protection and anti-spyware protection to close common pathways hackers might use to get at your data. Never send sensitive information, such as your Social Security or credit card numbers, over e-mail. If you use a webmail service such as Gmail, be sure to routinely change your password and avoid using the same password on a number of sites. It's all common sense, really: you keep your cash in the bank and your important documents in a locked box at home, so don't leave your online information vulnerable.
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