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To safeguard electronic mail

With every envelope sealed and delivered, there is an important American expectation being expressed -- the expectation of privacy. But postal privacy may soon be endangered by a creative thought of modern technology -- the electronic letter that needs neither stamp nor envelope.

On Jan. 4, 1982, the US Postal Service inaugurated E-COM, an electronic postal system that transmits messages directly from computer to computer. This innovative service is cause for celebration among commercial firms that believe E-COM will alleviate the high-volume stuffing, sealing, and sending of routine correspondence.

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However, E-COM (electronic-computer originated mail) has also rallied civil libertarians who consider the open and shut envelope a metaphor for the constitutional issue of privacy.

The argument is that there is an expectation of privacy in a sealed envelope that is not in a postcard. Does that expectation of envelope privacy carry over into a no-envelope electronic service? There are no legal precedents nor in-house rules protecting the privacy of electronic messages.

There is, however, an assumption in the E-COM service that privacy has a value and is to be protected. For instance, on arrival, an E-COM message is converted into hard copy, sealed, and delivered. But the message has been openly transmitted and made easy prey for interception by other computers and technological devices.

Electronic advocates say that the system is primarily designed for commercial and not general domestic use -- so the private individual need not be alarmed by the possibility of mailtapping.

But the possibility of mailtapping is as realistic in the use of E-COM as wiretapping in the use of the telephone. Wiretap law was not invented with the telephone. It was the result of a growing public awareness that the tapping of a personal conversation was unconscionable. Wiretapping legislation was called for to protect the personal and commercial uses of the telephone from government intrusion. E-Com mailtapping legislation could include requiring coding of electronic correspondence or devices to detect tapping. Certain risks are assumed in communicating -- as in having telephone conversations overheard or taped. But certain expectations are legally guaranteed -- as in having a private conversation.

A healthy regard for E-COM's promise should be balanced by an educated awareness of its potential for privacy abuse.

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