A French court has established a legal precedent by ruling that emails between individuals are confidential, like other forms of correspondence. The court ruled that it is illegal for a third party to access and read them without permission.
The 17th division of the Paris tribunal correctionnel, a criminal court, judged that three senior staff members of the grande ecole ESPCI (Ecole Superieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles) had spied on the private email of a research student at the school and were guilty of "violation of correspondence conducted via telecommunications". This first ruling in France on the issue makes reading someone else's emails without their knowledge or agreement tantamount to steaming open a letter or tapping a phone line.
The research student, Tareq Albaho, was involved in a dispute with a fellow student in 1996. Investigating the dispute, the laboratory head, Hans Herrmann, asked the laboratory's computer administrator, Francoise Virieux, to access Albaho's email using a master password, which she did for about ten days with the help of a colleague, Marc Fermigier.
Mr Albaho, a Kuwaiti, studied for his MSc at Imperial College London before moving to Paris to do research for his PhD on theoretical physics, specialising in neural networks. He had used the school's email system to correspond with a friend in the United States whom he had asked for help in dealing with the dispute. When the defendants covertly read this correspondence, they decided it was detrimental to the interests of the school.
Mr Albaho claims he became the target of a witchhunt: his computer files were closed, his re-enrolment cancelled, his letters to ESPCI's director asking for an explanation went unanswered, his belongings were packed in boxes and his desk given to someone else. The Kuwaiti embassy, which was sponsoring his studies, intervened but only received a reply from the director after the mayor of one of the Paris districts inquired into the case.
Mr Albaho returned to London to resume his research at Imperial, where he decided to file charges against Mr Herrmann, Ms Virieux and Mr Fermigier.
The defendants did not deny ordering or carrying out the interception of Mr Albaho's email. But the tribunal ruled that the reasons they gave - that they were investigating the dispute with another student and to establish he was using the system for private correspondence - were not admissible. The ruling said that while the charter of the Renater electronic research network stipulated it was for professional use only, it also specified that system administrators were not permitted to intervene in files without the authorisation of their owners, nor should they access students' mail.
The ruling said that internet and email services were covered by post and telecommunications legislation, and the term "correspondence" referred to "all written connections between two identifiable persons, whether concerning letters, messages, or contained in sealed or unsealed envelopes". Sending electronic messages from person to person constituted private correspondence, it said.