What does a Marine hero's death in Iraq have to do with privacy laws in the United States? Lance Corporal Justin Ellsworth was one that had selfless dedication and personal bravery in the face of grave danger and his actions were nothing less than heroic. On November 13th, 2004 while conducting a dismounted combat patrol in Iraq, LCPL Ellsworth was mortally wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device while attempting to neutralize it and protect his unit.
Upon his death, the parents of LCPL Ellsworth were notified and received his personal effects. They also requested access to his email which was denied by Yahoo, the service provider to Ellsworth's email account. When Yahoo refused, the family sued in court and eventually won. The question to be answered is what are considered "personal effects". Is email the same as a written letter? Electronic communications are not included in this list as defined by Army regulation.
The Army is the responsible service for processing of remains and personal effects of deceased service members. Yahoo attempted to protect LCPL Ellsworth's privacy and failed. "But from a legal point of view, e-mail's status is not clear cut. Even the experts can't agree. One law professor describes it as "a property interest," but not intellectual property. Another lecturer on law says absolutely it is intellectual property and is covered by copyright laws. " (Llewelyn, 2005)
It is important to consider the rights of the surviving next of kin, in this case, the parents and one can understand the emotional attachment and sense of closure that may be gained by access to letters written to them by their son, even if that communication is electronic. However, by gaining access to Ellsworth's password, they also gained access to his entire email account. Some of the contents of the email account may have included communications that were not intended for his parents.
In this case the court should have ordered Yahoo to release only those communications that were intended to be delivered to the next of kin and not the password to the email account. If laws state that email is to be considered the same as written communication then that would be the solution. Individuals can protect their right to privacy beyond death by including it in a will. "The legal solution, Professor Perritt says, is to write a will and bequeath the e-mail to a trustee who is instructed to destroy it. " (Llewelyn, 2005) It appears that the courts will not protect your privacy after you die.