The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled last week that accessing online e-mail without permission does not violate the 1986-era Stored Communications Act (SCA). The Court declined to hold that retaining an opened email on a webmail provider’s servers constitutes storing the email for “backup” protection under the SCA. This article on Ars Technica provides additional details.
Pundits often claim that we should rely on an expectation of privacy in email because of laws that criminalize intercepting email or accessing email without authorization. This opinion demonstrates the insufficiency of assuming that laws protect the privacy and confidentiality of email content, at least insofar as webmail is concerned.
More fundamentally, the assertion that email must be private and confidential because the law criminalizes its interception is like saying that because burglaries are illegal we should pretend they never occur. Instead of sticking your head in the sand, take proactive steps to protect the content of email by encrypting it during transmission and storage.