The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that one has an expectation of privacy for the contents of a letter being sent, but not for the envelope itself. Therefore, the government can examine the envelope without a warrant.
They have also ruled that one has an expectation of privacy for the contents of a phone conversation, but not for the phone logs. Therefore, the government can examine the phone logs without a warrant as well.
Paradoxically, since emails exist on external servers and can be accessed by network administrators, they feel that we have no expectation of privacy for those, giving the government a free hand to examine your emails at will.
And, while we have an expectation of privacy for the inside of a house or vehicle, according to the courts we have no expectation of privacy for the outside of our house or vehicle, which is why drug-sniffing dogs can be run around a car to develop probable cause for a search, and why the government can go dumpster diving for the things you throw away.
Somehow, my standards of privacy are much higher than that of the Supreme Court.
While it is true that anyone at the post office can see the outside of an envelope, the idea that someone might be photographing the front and back of every envelope I send is offensive and an invasion of privacy (and apparently, the US government does exactly that). In isolation, seeing one envelope does not give one much information about my life, but in aggregate, seeing every envelope ever posted unveils everything about me. And simply put, even though I am not breaking the law, it is none of the government’s damn business what I am doing.
In the same way, just because some guy at the phone company can see my phone logs or a network administrator can see my email logs, it does not mean that I expect them to be posted in the newspaper, broadcast to the world, or collected by the government. I go to great lengths to choose companies who will protect my privacy on these matters, so yes, I do have a strong expectation of privacy when it comes to phone records and email logs.
I do have an expectation of privacy for the contents of my emails. It is inexcusable that somehow some judge somewhere would think that I do not, and that the government would see fit to run with it.
I have an expectation for the privacy of the outside of my house and vehicles. It is true that anyone walking by can see them, so they are not exactly private. However, there is a word for someone who spends hours after hours watching your house from a public street, goes through your mailbox to see who you have written and who has written you, who sits outside your window to see if they can overhear bits of conversation, who goes through your garbage, who uses infrared devices to get the heat signature of your house in order to guess what you might be doing, and who attaches a GPS to your car so they can track your every movement: Such person is a stalker. If a private individual behaved this way, you could get a restraining order against them and possibly have them jailed. However, depending upon the district, the police can do all of these things, without a warrant, and without probable cause.
So, once again, maybe my expectations of privacy are higher than that of the US government.
Or maybe not.
Why is it that the Obama administration has so heavily resisted turning over information to Congress on Fast and Furious? Why is it that they will not tell us what Obama was doing on the night when a US ambassador and three other American officials were murdered? Why is it that employees of the EPA send emails using phoney names? Why the stonewalling and dissembling on the IRS mess?
Maybe they have an expectation of privacy as well.