Setting up Outlook rule to intercept another’s email can be a federal crime

U.S. v. Szymuszkiewicz, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 3503506 (7th Cir. September 9, 2010)

Seventh Circuit upholds conviction of employee who secretly intercepted his boss’s email.

A federal jury convicted the defendant, who was an IRS revenue officer, of violating the Wiretap Act (or the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, as some like to call it — 18 USC 2511(1)(a). He had snuck onto his boss’s computer and set a rule in Microsoft Outlook to autoforward copies of all incoming email to his own account.

The defendant sought review of his conviction with the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed. Judge Easterbrook’s opinion is interesting reading. It is a nice accompaniment to the 2005 decision from the First Circuit in U.S. v. Councilman.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the Wiretap Act required that the “interception” of the email be “contemporaneous” with its transmission: “[d]ecisions articulating such a requirement are thinking football rather than the terms of the statute.” (Such decisions would include Fraser v. Nationwide Mutual (3d Cir.), Steve Jackson Games v. Secret Service (5th Cir.), Konop v. Hawaiian Airlines (9th Cir.) and United States v. Steiger (11th Cir).

In any event, the court found that the defendant’s interception of the messages in this case was “contemporaneous by any standard.” The evidence showed that the Outlook rules, though set within the email client, operated on the server. A message to the boss would go to an email server in Kansas City, and then be “flung across the network” as packets making up two copies, one for the boss and one for the defendant. It was this copying on the server that was the unlawful interception.

If you’re at all interested in this case and the Wiretap Act, then you must check out Orin Kerr’s post at the Volokh Conspiracy, especially the comments to that post. Very erudite discussion.