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n 12 states, it is illegal to record your own telephone conversations without the consent of the person at the other end of the line.Now a judge in Washington, one of those privacy-conscious states, has ruled that the state's law does not apply to the new world of e-mail and online chats.That decision, which appears to be the first of its kind, represents a bad precedent for online privacy, some legal experts say.
The novel legal issue of how to characterize e-mail communication arose in a recent criminal case in Washington's Spokane County.
The police there said they received information that 26-year-old Donald Townsend was seeking sex with minors that he met online.
Setting up a sting operation on the Internet, Detective Jerry Keller pretended to be a 13-year-old girl named Amber with a Hotmail e-mail account and a screen name of "ambergirl87," according to legal papers.
Detective Keller, in the role of Amber, sent messages to Townsend, kicking off an e-mail exchange between the two parties -- about seven messages in all, said Deputy County Prosecutor Patti Walker.
Keller saved the ICQ communications on his computer and later printed them out for use as potential evidence in the case, after Townsend tried to meet "Amber" in a bar.
Keller also stored and printed out the e-mail messages he received from Townsend.
Townsend was eventually arrested and charged with attempted rape of a minor, possession of child pornography and other crimes.
In addition, "Amber" and Townsend had a series of electronic conversations on ICQ, an Internet chat network owned by America Online that allows users to communicate in real time.
While ICQ can be used to create a public chat room, the conversations that took place between Keller and Townsend were private chats that were inaccessible to others, the legal papers say.
Over three days last June, Townsend sent 86 ICQ messages to Keller, Walker said in a telephone interview.
In some of them, he "was setting up a date with a fictitious 13-year-old and trying to have sex with her," she said.