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FBI still reads your email without a warrant

May 9, 2013
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fbi FBI still reads your email without a warrant

The FBI says it can read your email whenever they want

Despite a federal appeals court ruling to the contrary, the FBI claims it can, and in many cases does, read your e-mails, texts, and other private electronic communications without a warrant.

While the bureau insists this policy does not breach the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is not so sure, having obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act, which state that all digital communications fall within the breadth of the Electronics Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which was enacted in 1986.

The ACLU states that this is the root of the problem: the Act is outdated and the FBI is using loopholes in this act to subpoena records without a warrant. Nathan Wessler, an attorney for the ACLU explains, “the documents we received from the FBI don’t flat out tell us whether FBI agents always get warrants, but they strongly suggest that they don’t.”

According to the 2012 FBI Domestic Investigation and Operations Guide (DIOG), they only need a warrant for e-mails that are unopened and less than 180 days old. That is the standard set forth by ECPA. However, the ACLU asserts this is the root of the problem: the terms of the digital communications privacy is a disarray of conflicting problems and confusion. They also emphasized that law enforcement officials do not need to show probable cause for a subpoena, therefore, no warrant is needed to take your private communications.



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What does this mean for professionals?

This newly surfaced information means that any electronic communication that you previously considered to be private and confidential could be subpoenaed by the FBI without a warrant, even though an appeals court ruled this very action to be unconstitutional. Think about how many aspects this would impact: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, video conferences, text messages, e-mails, etc. It is a tremendous amount of information, but, according the ACLU, the FBI says that citizens have “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” so, there does not seem to be much that businesses can do to protect themselves from the government.

However, many companies are just as upset about this loophole in FBI policy; Microsoft, Google, and Apple release “transparency reports,” in which they disclose how many times the government asks for this type of information. And some social media companies, like Twitter, actively fight against the subpoena. So, you can take heart that the social media companies are not pleased with the situation either.

If you are interested in helping the ACLU fight to keep the FBI out of your private communications without a warrant, there is a petition on the ACLU web site that you can send to your representatives. The body of the petition is pre-filled; you just fill in your name and address and it emails it right to your representatives. This petition can be found here.

Jennifer Walpole is a staff writer for AGBeat and holds a Master's degree in English from the University of Oklahoma. She is a science fiction fanatic and enjoys writing way more than she should. She dreams of being a screenwriter and seeing her work on the big screen in Hollywood one day.