North Carolina Law Review

University of North Carolina School of Law

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Taking Back "Electronic Storage": South Carolina's Jennings and Why the Stored Communications Act Should (and Does) Protect Opened Emails

March 27, 2014

92 N.C. L. Rev. Addendum 76 (2014)


Despite such warnings as the recent buzz surrounding Google's policy of scanning email messages for verbal cues in order to target advertising, Americans have increasingly come to rely on email and other online communication as a replacement for traditional mail. And as with traditional mail, users tend to regard such correspondence as private. Even General David Petraeus, former director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, made the mistake of assuming that the contents of his Gmail account would be safe from prying eyes. Many users accept, as the price of "free" online services, that information sent or stored can potentially be accessed by the providers of the online services. Most users, however, would probably assume that legal redress would be available if a third party hacked into their email account, made duplicates of private messages, and shared those messages with others. However, as a ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court recently suggested, such relief may not be available in some jurisdictions.


In Jennings v. Jennings, the plaintiff's soon-to-be-ex-wife illicitly accessed email messages that the plaintiff had read and left in his email account. The plaintiff responded by suing his wife and her accomplices under the federal Stored Communications Act ("SCA"). Unbeknownst to the plaintiff, the case would go all the way up to the South Carolina Supreme Court, where it would highlight the now- obvious shortcomings of the SCA. 



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