Is the U.S. government reading email without a warrant?

In a landmark 2010 case, United States v. Warshak, government investigators acknowledged that they read 27,000 emails without obtaining a search warrant, violating both the suspect’s privacy and the privacy of everyone who communicated with the suspect, according to Crump…

The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act and its subsection, the Stored Communications Act, provides some guidelines for law enforcement review of email, but those are badly out of date now. They declare that federal authorities don’t need a warrant for data that’s stored externally (as opposed to locally, on a person’s hard drive) if it’s more than 6 months old. Given the ubiquity of services like Web-based Gmail, the 180-day distinction and the local vs. network storage issues are both now largely meaningless, and that’s essentially what the 6th Circuit Court found.

The discussion of requirements for email searches is more relevant than ever, given the explosion of social networks and their semi-private conversation tools and the coming of age of cloud services, where corporations are encouraged to keep all data in shared spaces that would fall under the Stored Communications Act. Concerned that such privacy issues would slow adoption of cloud services, a coalition of cloud-friendly companies calling itself “Digital Due Process,” has argued for updates to the Electronic Communication Act that would require higher legal standards for digital evidence gathering.

A critical element of the email issue is a debate about whether the Fourth Amendment requires the government to get warrant based on probable cause in order to read a suspect’s email.

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