In 1993, Steve Jackson Games, a small game publisher, won a landmark case against the U.S. Secret Service, which had seized its computers during a raid that targeted one of its employees. The case helped define privacy rights for electronic communication.
Steve Jackson won $50,000 in damages, and each employee whose private e-mail was read by the feds was awarded $1,000.
The case helped establish the reputation of the fledgling Electronic Frontier Foundation, which assisted in Jackson's defense.
In early 1990, the U.S. Secret Service began a series of well-publicized "crackdown" on computer-related crime. In most cases, they made a lot of mess (and press), but came up with little to show for it.
One such raid on March 1, 1990, targeted Steve Jackson Games employee Loyd Blankenship, whom they believed was part of the Legion of Doom, a hacker group that they believed had hacked into BellSouth's computers and taken an internal document as a "trophy." The document had been published in the electronic magazine Phrack and posted on thousands of bulletin board systems across the country.
In a blatant disregard for private property and Constitutional rights, the Secret Service seized essential business computers from the Austin, Texas-based publisher and rifled through personal e-mails, even though neither Jackson, his company nor his customers were ever suspected or accused of wrongdoing.
The company ran a bulletin board system called Illuminati, which allowed game authors and players to exchange messages and files. (BBSes were one of the forerunners of the Internet.) The Secret Service seized the computer that hosted Illuminati and reviewed, printed and deleted 162 personal e-mails that had not yet been delivered.
No charges were ever filed in connection with the Austin raids.
Hundreds of people used the company's BBS, which could not be reinstated for several months after the raid.
Steve Jackson Games, with EFF's help, sued the government over the raid, claiming violations of the rights of speech, assembly and privacy that cast a chill over the free exercise of those rights in online communities nationwide.
On the opening day of the civil trial, Jackson's attorneys got the Secret Service to admit that its agents were not taught the rules of the Privacy Protection Act, which regulates what materials may be seized from a publisher, and also that the information in the indictment linking Blankenship's hacking activities to Steve Jackson Games was erroneous.
The U.S. Justice Department argued that only traditional journalistic organizations are protected by law and that e-mail users have no reasonable expectation of privacy.
On the second day of the trial, BBS users testified that their personal e-mails were intercepted by the government.
"I never thought anyone would read my mail," Elizabeth Cayce-McCoy said, according to the Houston Chronicle. "I was very shocked and embarrassed."
On the third day of the trial, the judge subjected the Secret Service agent in charge of the raid to a lengthy rebuke. According to the Houston Chronicle, federal District Judge Sam Sparks said:
"Was there any reason why, on March 2, you could not return to Steve Jackson Games a copy, in floppy disk form, of everything taken?
"Did you read the article in Business Week magazine where it had a picture of Steve Jackson -- a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen -- saying he was a computer crime suspect?
"Did it ever occur to you, Mr. Foley, that seizing this material could harm Steve Jackson economically?"
Foley replied, "No, sir," but the judge offered his own answer.
"You actually did, you just had no idea anybody would actually go out and hire a lawyer and sue you."
... "The examination [of the seized computers] took seven days, but you didn't give Steve Jackson's computers back for three months. Why?" asked an incredulous Sparks. "So here you are, with three computers, 300 floppy disks, an owner who was asking for it back, his attorney calling you, and what I want to know is why copies of everything couldn't be given back in days. Not months. Days."
On March 12, 1993, the judge ruled in Jackson's favor -- the only question was how large the damages would be.
The Steve Jackson Games case helped protect individual rights of privacy and freedom of expression online. The federal government would have gladly stripped those rights away, saying they don't apply to electronic media.
"This lawsuit is just to stand up and say, at the end of the 20th Century, that publishing occurs as much on computers as on the printed page," said Jackson attorney Jim George, according to the Houston Chronicle.
This afternoon I spoke with Steve Jackson ... Steve, like most of his employees, is a Libertarian. He identifies with us strongly. Steve offered to assist us with publications, which is his area of expertise ...
Houston Chronicle news articles by Joe Abernathy during the trial in March 1993, and an e-mail later in 1993 by Jay Manifold.