Court ruling in USA of " Privacy " of Email

A U.S. District Court in Pennsylvania ruled on January 18,1996 that even if an employer promises not to intercept email on a company system, there is not an expectation of privacy in the email. The case underscores the question of whether the court system has an adequate understanding of the underlying technology.

According to the court, the employer repeatedly told its employees that "all email communications would remain confidential and privileged" and that "e-mail communications could not be used by [the company] against its employees as grounds for termination." Even with that promise, the employer intercepted the communications of Michael Smyth and fired him. The court held that:

   We do not find a reasonable expectation of privacy in e-mail
   communications voluntarily made by an employee to his supervisor
   over the company e-mail system notwithstanding any assurances by
   management. Once plaintiff communicated the alleged
   unprofessional comments to a second person over an e-mail system
   which was apparently utilized by the entire company, any
   reasonable expectation of privacy was lost .... we find no privacy
   interests in such communications.

   We do not find that a reasonable person would consider the
   defendant's interception of these communications to be a substantial
   and highly offensive invasion of his privacy"

A copy of the decision used to be available at:
See also the wikipedia page about this decision.
The above is from the Feb 29, 1996 issue of The EPIC Alert, a free biweekly publication of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. To subscribe, send email to with the subject: "subscribe" (no quotes). Back issues are available via or FTP/WAIS/Gopher/HTTP from /cpsr/alert/.