This is the kind of thing that can turn a member of the media against his own kind. The day after scores of news organizations crowed about a misperceived threat to Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPod -- which I've ranted about elsewhere on the Fool -- there's been a mere whisper about a recent court decision that could have a much greater impact on the average American.

A federal appeals court recently made a ruling that allows just about anyone to read your email at any time, for any reason, without fear of lawsuit or prosecution. The case is a bit complex, so bear with me.

In the late 1990s, a small bookseller in Boston offered email accounts to some customers. But there was a hidden catch. Store employees were snooping in messages between those individuals and (NASDAQ:AMZN) in order to try to glean some kind of competitive advantage. Sound illegal to you? It would be, if wiretap law applied. But according to the appeals court, wiretap law is irrelevant.

By the court's reasoning, the filched email was "stored communication," which can be legally browsed by companies. Of course, we all know, email doesn't just zoom from one place to another without a trace. Instead, the text is transmitted through a variety of momentary resting places, until it finally ends up on your mail server. In other words, it's always "stored communication." By similar logic, it should be legal to open up a letter so long as the carrier isn't jogging with her mailbag. If email providers, and the government, can follow the letter of this ruling, say goodbye to email privacy altogether.

Of course, most email providers like Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Yahoo! (NYSE:YHOO), and Time Warner's (NYSE:TWX) AOL have privacy policies in place. Even Google, with its somewhat creepy scan-and-market system, promises that no real, live person will look at your innermost thoughts. That's not much solace if the law permits wholesale snooping.

It's not that I don't trust these folks. But I don't trust these folks. Corporations are in the business of making money, and if they can do that by prying into your inbox, you can bet they will. As an investor, I'd say "do what it takes to make the bucks." But as a person, I'm even more convinced that anything sent via email should be considered about as confidential as a scream in church.

For more Foolish coverage of the email biz:

Fool contributor Seth Jayson knows that just because he's paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not after him. He has no position in any company mentioned. View his Fool profile here.