A Freedom Of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has revealed that the FBI has been reading private emails without warrant, using a law from the 1980’s.
The ACLU have said:
New documents from the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ offices paint a troubling picture of the government’s email surveillance practices. Not only does the FBI claim it can read emails and other electronic communications without a warrant–even after a federal appeals court ruled that doing so violates the Fourth Amendment–but the documents strongly suggest that different U.S. Attorneys’ offices around the country are applying conflicting standards to access communications content.
The FBI provided the ACLU with excerpts from two versions of its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG), from 2008 and 2012. One of the Guides is from before Warshak was decided and the other one is from after, but they say the same thing: FBI agents only need a warrant for emails or other electronic communications that are unopened and less than 180 days old. The 2012 Guide contains no mention of Warshak, and no suggestion that the Fourth Amendment might require a warrant for all emails. In fact, the 2012 Guide states:
According to an excerpt from the 2012 FBI Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide:
“In enacting the [Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA)], Congress concluded that customers may not retain a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in information sent to network providers…[I]f the contents of an unopened message are kept beyond six months or stored on behalf of the customer after the e-mail has been received or opened, it should be treated the same as a business record in the hands of a third party, such as an accountant or attorney. In that case, the government may subpoena the records from the third party without running afoul of either the Fourth or Fifth Amendment.”
Think Progress reports:
ECPA, the law governing access to email and cloud stored data, was passed at a time when the cost of online storage was so high it seemed unthinkable that anyone would store data there indefinitely, so anything left on networked storage for longer than 180 days was considered abandoned and required only an administrative subpoena to access. But in the time since it became law, the price of online storage went down and many people started to rely on free cloud based email solutions like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail as digital storage lockers.
There have been numerous efforts to update ECPA to be more in line with current consumer behavior and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unwarranted searches and seizures, but none as of yet have succeeded. The most recent attempt to update the law to clearly require a probable cause warrant hit a major milestone in April when S.B. 607, a standalone fix, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ) introduced a companion bill to the House on Tuesday, although a similar proposal was already introduced by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Ted Poe (R-TX) and Suzan DelBene (D-WA) earlier this year.