A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that federal law didn’t protect text messages and pictures stored on a Texas woman’s personal phone from the preying eyes of her employers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that the Stored Communications Act (SCA), a federal law aimed at guarding against intrusions on individual privacy, doesn’t apply to data stored on a cell phone.
The case was titled Garcia v. City of San Laredo, (full text here)and involved a former police dispatcher in Laredo, Texas, who was fired after her superiors reviewed text messages and images on her phone that revealed an extramarital affair. The ruling held that personal cell phones are not “facilities” under text of the SCA.
As we will discuss in class, to be liable under the SCA, a defendant must have gained unauthorized access to a facility through which an electronic communication service is provided and must thereby have accessed electronic communications while held in electronic storage. The court looked closely at persuasive authority from the 11th circuit, notably United States v. Steiger, which held that a hacker’s access of an individual’s hard drive was beyond the reach of the SCA. The court quoted from Steiger, stating that the SCA does not “appear to apply to the source’s hacking into [a] computer to download images and identifying information stored on his hard-drive.”
We will talk more about this case and the SCA during this year, but Garcia represents a continued path of litigation for the SCA in other courts that have reached the same conclusion.