Secrecy of correspondence
The secrecy of correspondence ) or literally translated as secrecy of letters, is a fundamental legal principle enshrined in the constitution
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is...

s of several European countries. It guarantees that the content of sealed letters is never revealed and letters in transit are not opened by government
Government refers to the legislators, administrators, and arbitrators in the administrative bureaucracy who control a state at a given time, and to the system of government by which they are organized...

 officials or any other third party. It is thus the main legal basis for the assumption of privacy of correspondence.

The principle has been naturally extended to other forms of communication
Telecommunication is the transmission of information over significant distances to communicate. In earlier times, telecommunications involved the use of visual signals, such as beacons, smoke signals, semaphore telegraphs, signal flags, and optical heliographs, or audio messages via coded...

, including telephony
In telecommunications, telephony encompasses the general use of equipment to provide communication over distances, specifically by connecting telephones to each other....

 and electronic communications on the Internet
The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite to serve billions of users worldwide...

 as the constitutional guarantees are generally thought to cover also these forms of communication. However, national telecommunications privacy laws may allow lawful interception
Lawful interception
Lawful interception is obtaining communications network data pursuant to lawful authority for the purpose of analysis or evidence. Such data generally consist of signalling or network management information or, in fewer instances, the content of the communications...

, 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
Surveillance is the monitoring of the behavior, activities, or other changing information, usually of people. It is sometimes done in a surreptitious manner...

, 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 record
Call detail record
A call detail record , also known as call data record, is a data record produced by a telephone exchange or other telecommunications equipment documenting the details of a phone call that passed through the facility or device...

s), and in the case of mobile communication
Mobile phone
A mobile phone is a device which can make and receive telephone calls over a radio link whilst moving around a wide geographic area. It does so by connecting to a cellular network provided by a mobile network operator...

, 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.

United States

In the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 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
Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause...

. In an 1877 case the U.S. Supreme Court stated:
No law of Congress
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 can place in the hands of officials connected with the Postal Service
United States Postal Service
The United States Postal Service is an independent agency of the United States government responsible for providing postal service in the United States...

 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
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...


The protection of the Fourth Amendment has been extended beyond the home in other instances. A protection similar to that of correspondence has even been argued
California v. Greenwood
California v. Greenwood, 486 U.S. 35 , was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside the curtilage of a home....

 to extend to the contents of trash cans outside one's house, although unsuccessfully. Like all rights derived through litigation, the secrecy of correspondence is subject to interpretations. Rights derived from the Fourth Amendment are limited by the legal requirement of a "reasonable expectation of privacy".

See also

  • Black room
    Black room
    While a black room or black chamber is often now used to refer to any place or organisation dedicated to code-breaking, its more exact meaning is a secret room in a post office, and, later and by extension, a telecommunications center used by state officials to conduct clandestine interception and...

  • Data privacy
    Data privacy
    Information privacy, or data privacy is the relationship between collection and dissemination of data, technology, the public expectation of privacy, and the legal and political issues surrounding them....

  • Dead letter
    Dead letter
    A dead letter is one that can neither be delivered nor returned to sender. The term may also mean:* "Dead letter", legislation which has not been revoked but is obsolete, inapplicable, or no longer enforced....

  • Electronic Communications Privacy Act
    Electronic Communications Privacy Act
    The Electronic Communications Privacy Act is a United States law.- Overview :The “electronic communication” means any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectronic or...

  • Katz v. United States
    Katz v. United States
    Katz v. United States, , is a United States Supreme Court case discussing the nature of the "right to privacy" and the legal definition of a "search." The Court’s ruling adjusted previous interpretations of the unreasonable search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment to count immaterial...

  • Lawful interception
    Lawful interception
    Lawful interception is obtaining communications network data pursuant to lawful authority for the purpose of analysis or evidence. Such data generally consist of signalling or network management information or, in fewer instances, the content of the communications...

  • Postal censorship
    Postal censorship
    Postal censorship is the inspection or examination of mail, most often by governments. It can include opening, reading and total or selective obliteration of letters and their contents, as well as covers, postcards, parcels and other postal packets. Postal censorship takes place primarily but not...

  • Telecommunications data retention
    Telecommunications data retention
    In the field of telecommunications, data retention generally refers to the storage of call detail records of telephony and internet traffic and transaction data by governments and commercial organisations...

External links

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