In a highly unusual move, a federal judge has ordered Google to deactivate the email account of a user who was mistakenly sent confidential financial information by a bank.
The order, issued Wednesday by U.S. District Court Judge James Ware in the northern district of California, also requires Google to disclose the Gmail account holder's identity and contact information. The Gmail user hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing.
The ruling stems from a monumental error by the Wilson, Wyo.-based Rocky Mountain Bank. On Aug. 12, the bank mistakenly sent names, addresses, social security numbers and loan information of more than 1,300 customers to a Gmail address. When the bank realized the problem, it sent a message to that same address asking the recipient to contact the bank and destroy the file without opening it. No one responded, so the bank contacted Google to ask for information about the account holder.
The bank attempted to file its papers under seal, but U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte denied that request. Earlier this week, the case was transferred to Ware from Whyte.
Some lawyers say the Ware's order is problematic because it affects the Gmail account holder's First Amendment rights to communicate online, as well as his or her privacy rights.
"It's outrageous that the bank asked for this, and it's outrageous that the court granted it," says John Morris, general counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology. "What right does the bank have and go suspend the email account of a completely innocent person?"
He adds: "At the end of the day, the bank obviously screwed up. But it should not be bringing a lawsuit against two completely innocent parties and disrupting one of the innocent party's email contact to the world."
Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, adds that the judge's order could have significant ramifications for the Gmail account holder. "Losing an email account is a big deal," he said. "It's very disconcerting to think that a judge could simply order my account deactivated."