Accidental Privacy Spills

Journal of Internet Law, July 2008

NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07/08-35

11 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2008


The realm of privacy law has more crimes than criminals, more wrongs than wrongdoers. Some invasions of privacy are neither intentional nor negligent; it's easy to recognize the harm, but hard to pin the blame.

Laurie Garrett attended the World Economic Forum as a journalist and wrote a private email to a few close friends, only to see that email end up on a widely-read weblog.

This essay tells the story of that inevitable accident: an "accident" in that it needn't have happened, but "inevitable" in that there's no principled way to prevent similar misunderstandings from recurring, again and again and again. The essay considers social, technical, and legal responses, but concludes that none of them can prevent the informal forwarding behavior that led to the leak of Garrett's email without cutting off many overwhelmingly beneficial uses of email. The consequences for privacy and democracy may be unfortunate.

Keywords: internet, privacy, accidental privacy spills, Laurie Garrett, MetaFilter

Suggested Citation

Grimmelmann, James, Accidental Privacy Spills. Journal of Internet Law, July 2008, NYLS Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07/08-35, Available at SSRN:

James Grimmelmann (Contact Author)

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

Cornell Tech ( email )

111 8th Avenue #302
New York, NY 10011
United States

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