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IRS says it can read e-mails without a warrant

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In a “big brother”-esque sort of way, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has claimed that agents do not need warrants to read people’s emails, text messages and other private electronic communications.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released the information found in internal agency documents on Wednesday, The Hill reports, after obtaining the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Hill adds:

In a 2009 handbook, the IRS said the Fourth Amendment does not protect emails because Internet users “do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications.”

Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, government officials only need a subpoena, issued without a judge’s approval, to read emails that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old.

A federal appeals court ruled in the 2010 case U.S. v. Warshak that Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their e-mail, according to CNet.com.  Some e-mail providers, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook, have taken the position that Warshak mandates warrants for e-mail.

ACLU staff attorney Nathan Wessler said in a blog post that the IRS’s view of privacy rights violates the Fourth Amendment:

Let’s hope you never end up on the wrong end of an IRS criminal tax investigation. But if you do, you should be able to trust that the IRS will obey the Fourth Amendment when it seeks the contents of your private emails. Until now, that hasn’t been the case.

CNet.com notes that a number of corporations have petitioned Congress to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act to make it clear that law enforcement needs warrants to access private communications, and that the Justice Department will drop its opposition to an e-mail warrant requirement.

Tom Tillison


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