Is It Legal for Your Email Carrier to Read Your Email?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 08, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After Edward Snowden's revelations on NSA spying, many of us had to adjust our expectations of privacy when it came to email. Perhaps everything online, even private emails, is public.

But there appears to be some resistance to that idea. Key parts of the Patriot Act covering bulk email collection expired last week, and a federal judge says the Yahoo must face a class action lawsuit for reading its customers emails. But there's a twist -- it's not Yahoo Mail subscribers suing the search and email company.

Emailer Beware

Yahoo's FAQ says the company employs automated systems to scan all incoming and outgoing emails for keywords, both for targeted ads and for viruses and malware. So Yahoo Mail users are on notice, and (by using the email program) consent to Yahoo reading their email. In fact, a similar lawsuit against Google by Gmail subscribers was tossed out of court two years ago.

In this case, however, Yahoo was reading incoming messages from non-Yahoo subscribers, and it's those non-Yahoo Mail users that are filing the lawsuit. U.S. District Court Judge Lucy Koh distinguished the Yahoo case from the previous Google case: whereas it was difficult to determine which users consented to Google's activities, these "plaintiffs seek uniform relief from a common policy that Yahoo applies to all class members."

All of which seems to say it's perfectly legal for an email carrier to read emails between its own subscribers, but not those sent to or received from non-subscribers.

California Readin'

Judge Koh also allowed a group of California-based plaintiffs to sue Yahoo under the state's Invasion of Privacy Act. The Act prohibits, among other things:

"willfully and without the consent of all parties to the communication, or in any unauthorized manner, read[ing], or attempt[ing] to read, or to learn the contents or meaning of any message, report, or communication while the same is in transit or passing over any wire, line, or cable, or is being sent from, or received at any place within this state."

The non-Yahoo subscribers are contending that they never consented to Yahoo reading the contents of their emails. As the prospective class for this lawsuit includes anyone who sent emails to or received emails from Yahoo Mail subscribers since October 2, 2012, there's no telling how many people will opt in to the class action.

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