The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with Europe and the English-speaking world and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (February 2016)
The secrecy of correspondence (German: Briefgeheimnis, French: secret de la correspondance) or literally translated as secrecy of letters, is a fundamental legal principle enshrined in the constitutions of several European countries. It guarantees that the content of sealed letters is never revealed, and that letters in transit are not opened by government officials, or any other third party. The right of privacy to one's own letters is the main legal basis for the assumption of privacy of correspondence.
The principle has been naturally extended to other forms of communication, including telephony and electronic communications on the Internet, as the constitutional guarantees are generally thought to also cover these forms of communication. However, national telecommunications privacy laws may allow lawful interception, i.e. wiretapping and monitoring of electronic communications in cases of suspicion of crime. Paper letters have, in most jurisdictions, remained outside the legal scope of law enforcement surveillance, even in cases of "reasonable searches and seizures".
When applied to electronic communication, the principle protects not only the content of the communication, but also the information on when and to whom any messages (if any) have been sent (see: Call detail records), and in the case of mobile communication, the location information of the mobile units. As a consequence, in jurisdictions with a safeguard on secrecy of letters, location data collected from mobile phone networks has a higher level of protection than data collected by vehicle telematics or transport tickets.
In the United States, there is no specific constitutional guarantee on the privacy of correspondence. The secrecy of letters and correspondence is derived through litigation from the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In an 1877 case, the U.S. Supreme Court stated:
No law of Congress can place in the hands of officials connected with the Postal Service any authority to invade the secrecy of letters and such sealed packages in the mail; and all regulations adopted as to mail matter of this kind must be in subordination to the great principle embodied in the fourth amendment of the Constitution.
The protection of the Fourth Amendment has been extended beyond the home in other instances. In the Supreme Court case California v. Greenwood, protections similar to that of correspondence has even been argued to extend to the contents of trash cans outside one's house, although it turned out to be unsuccessful. Like all rights derived through litigation, the secrecy of correspondence is subject to interpretations. By Supreme Court precedent, rights derived from the Fourth Amendment are limited by the legal test of a "reasonable expectation of privacy".
- Black room
- Data privacy
- Dead letter
- Electronic Communications Privacy Act
- Katz v. United States
- Lawful interception
- Postal censorship
- Telecommunications data retention
- Act on the Protection of Privacy at the Finnish Communications Regulatory Authority site
- Letter to the House On the Privacy of Outbound U.S. Mail (10/18/2000) by ACLU
- Anuj C. Desai. The Post Office and the Birth of Communications Privacy
- Roxana Maria Roba. The Legal Protection of the Secrecy of Correspondence, Curentul "Juridic" (archived), 2009, number 1, Tîrgu-Mureş, Romania.
- "Chapter X, Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens, Article 128". 1936 Constitution of the USSR.
The inviolability of the homes of citizens and privacy of correspondence are protected by law.
- Philippos K. Spyropoulos; Philippos C. Spyropoulos; Theodore P. Fortsakis (2009). Constitutional Law in Greece. Kluwer Law International. p. 228. ISBN 9789041128782.
- DAVID JOHN MAROTTA (June 15, 2013). "Right to Privacy of Correspondence of Other Countries (section: Greece)".
- Condunina, Răzvan-Alexandru (2020). "Violation of Secrecy of Correspondence -Means of Committing the Offense of Criminal Acts by Public Officials. Case Studies from the Practice of the European Court of Human Rights". European Integration Realities and Perspectives. 13: 489–495.
- Elena, Tudurachi (2014-02-21). "Wiretaps Interference of Public Authorities in the Right to Privacy and Correspondence". Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 5th World Conference on Educational Sciences. 116: 4593. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.991. ISSN 1877-0428.
- "Constitution to extend protection to e-mails". Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations - Government of the Netherlands. 11 July 2014.
- Roba, Roxana Maria (2009). "The legal protection of the secrecy of correspondence". Curentul Juridic, the Juridical Current, le Courant Juridique. 1: 135–54.
- "Fourth Amendment in the Digital Age - National Constitution Center". National Constitution Center – constitutioncenter.org. Retrieved 2021-04-02.
- Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727, 733 (1877)
- Matiteyahu, Taly. "Drone regulations and fourth amendment rights: The interaction of state drone statutes and the reasonable expectation of privacy". Colum. JL & Soc. Probs.