Washington, Aug. 6: A federal appeals court in California is reviewing a lower courts definition of interception in the digital age, in a case that some legal experts say could weaken consumer privacy protections online.
The case, Bunnell versus Motion Picture Association of America, involves a hacker who in 2005 broke into a file-sharing companys server and obtained copies of company emails as they were being transmitted. He then emailed 34 pages of the documents to an MPAA executive, who paid the hacker $15,000 for the job, according to court documents. The issue boils down to the judicial definition of an intercept in the electronic age, in which packets of data move from server to server, alighting for milliseconds before speeding onward. The ruling applies only to California and other western states, but could influence other courts around the US.
In August 2007, Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in California ruled that the alleged hacker, Rob Anderson, had not intercepted the emails in violation of the 1968 Wiretap Act because they were technically in storage, if only for a few instants, instead of in transmission. Anderson did not stop or seize any of the messages that were forwarded to him, Cooper said in her decision, which was appealed by Valence Media. Andersons actions did not halt the transmission of the messages to their intended recipients. As such, under well-settled case law, as well as a reading of the statute and the ordinary meaning of the word intercept, Anderson's acquisitions of the e-mails did not violate the Wiretap Act.