Judge Orders e-mail Account Closed

On September 24, U.S. District Court Judge James Ware ordered Google to deactivate the email account of a person who was accidentally emailed confidential information even though the user was not accused of doing anything wrong. Judge Ware also ordered Google to disclose the Gmail account holder’s identity and contact information. Again, this person has not been accused of doing anything wrong.

A bit of background. In this post I noted how an employee at Rocky Mountain Bank accidentally sent a confidential email to a Google mail account. A customer asked that loan information be sent to him, but somehow another file was attached and the whole package was sent to the wrong address. When the bank realized the problem, it sent a message to that same address asking the recipient to contact the bank and destroy the file without opening it. No one responded, so the bank contacted Google to ask for information about the account holder.

In keeping with its privacy policy, Google told the bank it would have to get a court order to obtain such data. The bank then filed papers asking a court to order Google to disclose the information and deactivate the account. The bank attempted to file its papers under seal, but U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte denied that request. Earlier last week, the case was transferred to James Ware from Whyte.

I am not a lawyer, but Ware’s order seems problematic to me because it affects the Gmail account holder’s First Amendment rights to communicate, as well as his or her privacy rights. This seems like illegal search and seizure because it was the bank employee who very obviously screwed up. “It’s outrageous that the bank asked for this, and it’s outrageous that the court granted it,” says John Morris, general counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “What right does the bank have and go suspend the email account of a completely innocent person?”

I would claim that this case has major implications for the freedom and privacy of everyone online. I make a mistake, and your email gets cut off. Even better, if I don’t like you or you’re a competitor, I can intentionally email you something ‘by accident’ then ask Ware to shut you down. If I sent you a letter by accident, would Ware demand that your mailbox be removed? This just doesn’t sit right with me and I believe that Google did the right thing and Ware is out of line on this one.

Your thoughts?

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