Scope of Electronic Communications Privacy Act may not be so narrow

Brahmana v. Lembo, No. 09-106, 2009 WL 1424438 (N.D. Cal. May 20, 2009)

Plaintiff former employee Brahmana sued his former employer Cyberdata, claiming that Cyberdata violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (at 18 U.S.C. 2511) (“ECPA”). Brahmana claimed that Cyberdata used a keylogger to intercept the username and password for Brahmana’s personal email account.

Cyberdata moved to dismiss the claim under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The court denied the motion, finding that the determination of whether there was a violation of the ECPA would best be made after discovery.

The ECPA makes it unlawful for any person to intentionally intercept, among other things, any “electronic communication.” An “electronic communication” is defined in the ECPA as “any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectronic, or photooptical system that affects interstate or foreign commerce.”

An important question in this case was whether the keystrokes allegedly captured by the keylogging device met this definition of electronic communication.

An earlier case from another district (United States v. Ropp, 347 F.Supp.2d 831 (C.D. Cal. 2004)) held that keystrokes gathered by a hardware keylogger attached between a computer’s keyboard and central processing unit were not electronic communications because the system transmitting the information did not affect interstate commerce.

But another case questioned that opinion’s holding, finding that though the keystrokes themselves did not travel in interstate commerce, they did “affect interstate commerce” and therefore fell within the ECPA’s definition.

This court avoided ruling on the legal question of whether intercepting electronic data being transmitted from one piece of local hardware to another might be an electronic communication as defined by the ECPA. One must remember that a Rule 12(b)(6) motion merely tests the sufficiency of the pleadings. The court does not consider evidence at that stage, but merely tests whether the facts alleged by the plaintiff could plausibly support the legal claim.

In this case, the court found that Brahmana’s allegations did not specify whether the particular means of monitoring affected interstate commerce, but were sufficient to render plausible the claim that communications were monitored in some way. “The issue of how any alleged monitoring took place,” the court found, “and whether it allegedly affected interstate commerce is better resolved after some discovery.”

The case instructs us that this court is not willing to read the definition of “electronic communication” as narrowly as the court did in Ropp. No doubt there will be some interesting evidence produced in discovery that shows how the keystrokes were allegedly intercepted. But at least we know at this early stage in the litigation that the court will consider whether the transmission of electronic data within a system — and not crossing state lines — may still affect interstate commerce.

I-Spy photo courtesy Flickr user Leo Reynolds under this Creative Commons license.

4 thoughts on “Scope of Electronic Communications Privacy Act may not be so narrow

  1. Victor

    I can see why there are some legal compunction's with classifying keylogger's.

    Most computer viruses these day's are crimeware and every time I read anything about it – perhaps from antiphishing.org – it seem's that keylogger viruses quickly becoming the most popular way to steal people's identities and financial information.

    From a non legal perspective – it seem's like there must be some importance in making the distinction between identity theft and spying/violation of privacy.

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