The Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) establishes a criminal offense for whoever “intentionally accesses without authorization a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided” or “intentionally exceeds an authorization to access that facility,” and by doing so “obtains, alters, or prevents authorized access to a wire or electronic communication while it is in electronic storage in such system.” 18 U.S.C. § 2701(a). The SCA also creates a civil cause of action, in which the plaintiff may obtain damages plus reasonable attorneys’ fees and other costs. 18 U.S.C. § 2707(b).
Federal district courts around the country have reached inconsistent conclusions when grappling with the issue of whether a particular communication is in “electronic storage” at the time it is accessed. The SCA defines electronic storage as “(A) any temporary, intermediate storage of a wire or electronic communication incidental to the electronic transmission thereof; and (B) any storage of such communication by an electronic communication service for purposes of backup protection of such communication.” 18 U.S.C. § 2510(17). Some courts have interpreted subsection (A) as applying only to “unopened” communications, reasoning that the “temporary, intermediate” language contemplates the interception of a communication before it reaches its intended recipient. Others, like Hoofnagle v. Smyth-Wythe Airport Comm’n, No. 1:15CV00008 (W.D. Va. May 24, 2016), found no reason to draw a distinction between “opened” and “unopened” communications for purposes of evaluating SCA liability. Similar disagreement exists with respect to subsection (B), where courts reached different conclusions about the relevance of whether it is the Internet Service Provider or user for whose benefit a backup copy of an email is made. Earlier this month, the Fourth Circuit weighed in on both issues for the first time.