The case, Bunnell v. Motion Picture Association of America, was brought against the MPAA by Justin Bunnell, the owner of TorrentSpy, who found out that the MPAA had intercepted his email communication.
In 2005, an associate of TorrentSpy, Robert Anderson, ‘changed sides’ after an internal dispute and decided to work with the MPAA instead, gathering evidence against the BitTorrent site.
The man configured the TorrentSpy mail server to copy and forward all of the site’s email to his own Gmail account. He later sold the 34 pages of information to the MPAA for around $15,000 but later relented and went back to work with the torrent site, telling them what he knew. The same man also spied on The Pirate Bay.
The EFF had filed a brief with the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that federal wiretap laws protect emails from interception while they are stored on the mail servers that work to transmit them. However, the federal district court ruled that because the emails were momentarily stored on the server during the delivery process, under the Wiretap Act they were not technically intercepted. The ruling itself only applies to the 9th District, but could have relevance at other courts in the US.
In its friend-of-the-court brief, the EFF states this ruling is incorrect and must be reviewed, since it could allow the government to spy on other people’s emails in the future, without the need for a court order.
“The district court’s decision, if upheld, would have dangerous repercussions far beyond this single case,” Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston at the EFF said. “That court opinion — holding that the secret and unauthorized copying and forwarding of emails while they pass through an email server is not an illegal interception of those emails — threatens to wholly eviscerate federal privacy protections against Internet wiretapping and to authorize the government to conduct similar email surveillance without getting a wiretapping order from a judge.”
It appears that, as long as emails aren’t actually intercepted en-route, it could be legal for the government to request that an ISP copies an individual’s emails after they arrive on the mail server. This would not be classed as a breach of wiretap laws, which is a worryingly easy circumvention of vital privacy laws according to the EFF.
The EFF asks the Court to vacate the district court decision, and and rule that the MPAA hacker did “intercept” email communication from TorrentSpy owner Justin Bunnell. The full amicus brief can be viewed here.