Can the Feds Read Your Email?

Category: Email , Privacy

You might be shocked to learn that there's very little to prevent government snoops from peeking into your email. But a U.S. Senate committee has just approved greater protection against surreptitious and warrantless searches of people’s electronic communications. Here's what you need to know about email privacy...

New Protections for Online Privacy on the Horizon

The Leahy-Lee Amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) is being hailed as a breakthrough by privacy advocates, but it still faces hurdles before it can become law, and leaves a few loopholes for law enforcement. Even if it becomes law, it may be overridden by the contentious CISPA bill that seeks to expand government cybersleuthing powers. Read on to see what’s happening.

Currently, the ECPA allows "warrantless demands" for electronic communications (email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) -- if such communications have been read by the intended recipients OR if they have not been accessed for more than six months. To obtain unread communications less than six months old requires a warrant to be issued by a judge.
Email Privacy Laws

That's not to say that anyone in government or law enforcement can simply take a peek into your email at any time. But most people think the Feds have more power than they should here. The situation now is this: a federal prosecutor need only issue a subpoena to a third-party service provider (Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, etc.), without specifying probable cause or getting a judge to review it. The user need not be notified that such records are being sought. Even if a search warrant is required; the warrant is issued to the service provider, not the user.

The Leahy-Lee amendment would eliminate the “six months” rule, and requires a judge to agree that there is probable cause before issuing a warrant for the release of the information. And judges typically have a pretty high standard of proof in matters like this. It also requires the government to notify users of searches conducted pursuant to search warrants within ten days of obtaining such warrants. But there are two exceptions to that notification requirement.

The first is the infamous “National Security Letter,” an administrative subpoena authorized by the PATRIOT Act. A service provider who receives a NSL is prohibited from informing the affected user(s) that it is turning over records to the government, or even disclosing to anyone that it has received a NSL. A federal judge found NSLs to be unconstitutional prior restraint of speech in March 2013, but it remains to be seen whether that ruling will survive appeal.

The second exception allows delay of notification beyond ten days if it is necessary to avoid tipping off the subject of an investigation.

We're Not Quite There, Yet...

A third potential dilution, confusion, or potential outright nullification, of the Leahy-Lee Amendment is CISPA – the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act that's currently under consideration. It contains a provision that makes it enforceable “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” CISPA ostensibly allows private businesses to share information about customers’ online activities and communications with each other and the government for the purpose of defeating or preventing hacker attacks. CISPA has been sent back to committee for revisions to provide more privacy protection. It appears dead for now, but could still be re-introduced at a later date.

The Leahy-Lee Amendment also forbids a service provider from “voluntarily disclosing the contents of its customers' email or other electronic communications to the government.” But yikes, why would they want to, unless it was to disclose some criminal activity to law enforcement? Hopefully, they're still allowed to do that, but it's not clear to me.

Here's the bottom line: Right now, a federal prosecutor can issue a subpoena to pry into any email you've already opened, or any unopened emails that are at least 6 months old. The Leahy-Lee Amendment changes that by requiring probable cause and a federal judge's approval.

If the bill makes it through the full Senate, is approved by the House, and signed by the President it will be a tenuous victory for privacy, with a few loopholes. If you're not a criminal or a terrorist, the Feds can no longer access your email without a judge's approval. Let's hope that happens soon.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Can the Feds Read Your Email?"

Posted by:

02 May 2013

The government does what it wants anyway. Look at how they tied up Boston during the bombing investigation by restricting people to their houses. They were searching people's houses without any warrants. Our rights are slowly being taken away without any resistance.

Posted by:

Darcetha Manning
02 May 2013

In order to protect our national security, we are going to have to give up our privacy. We can't have it both ways. You can't have something for nothing.

My email's would not interest the government anyway. ;)

Posted by:

02 May 2013

Makes me consider turning off my computer and selling it.The ammendments mean nothing anymore.

Posted by:

02 May 2013

That the NSA has long had access to everything, recently confirmed by Frontline: Top Secret America,
Dozens of data access/processing centers in industrial parks across the US. The transatlantic cable goes through their building in the UK. The FBI, who is out of the NSA loop, requests info on thousands of Google accounts/year, which Google cannot specify. Google gets 40,000+ law enforcement requests/year.

Posted by:

02 May 2013



Posted by:

02 May 2013

One on here left a comment thinking they should give up their privacy, and constitutional rights for this little so called protection is very stupid!!! So goes righs so goes freedoms!!! Some people need to get a brain!!!

Posted by:

02 May 2013

Why not let the Feds read it? Gmail reads it, and nobody says boo. At least the Feds are trying to catch lawbreakers......

Posted by:

02 May 2013

If you don't have anything compromising to hide then just let them get bored to death with your emails

Posted by:

coach anne
03 May 2013

I pity the poor government flunky assigned to read my BORING email...

Of all that's wrong with the world, this country, and our government these days, protecting my email is the least of my concerns. If I were ever to have something to discuss that might interest law enforcement, I would hardly put it in an email!

Posted by:

03 May 2013

the feebs already look at ANY suspicious email. How? Certain words that might be found in an email will kick out that email for feeb examination... for more info see:

Posted by:

03 May 2013

Let me see if I understand all of this. Some people believe our government has the right to eavesdrop on a citizen's cell phone calls or intercept emails as long as it's done under the guise of "national security". Hmm. I wonder if those folks would be so quick to applaud these interceptions if the government went just a little bit further and decided to open and read our snail mail or kick down our doors at 3 a.m. to conduct warrantless searches . . . all in the name of "national security".

If the government can ignore that "legal loophole" called probable cause when it comes to cell phone calls and emails, what protection do we have if the government decides to broaden how and where it searches for terrorists? Does anyone remember the phrase "police state" and how this country worked to eradicate police states and communism?

Looks like we've come full circle. But it must be OK because our government is doing it for "national security" purposes.

Posted by:

03 May 2013

I'm a U.S. citizen. When 9/11 happened I was in India, living as a Hindu monk. It immediately became obvious that my email was being hacked continuously. I'd find new emails already marked as read. Ones I'd read became marked as unread. Some appeared in my account days after they'd been sent, others disappeared and reappeared - or not, and about any other thing you can imagine. I sent "them" an email - addressed to a friend - telling them they were wasting their time - which probably made them intensify their wasted efforts - and also let them know what a bungled job they were doing if any sort of secrecy was supposed to be involved. I hope their efforts resulted in great successes.

This sort of stuff has been going on in all aspects of the lives of some for long, and isn't about to stop, no matter what the laws say. That's how the intelligence organizations work.

The difference is that in the past, within our own country, it generally involved "legitimate" suspects, or suspiciously acting prospects (persons of interest) who might become suspects.
Now, everyone is becoming a prospect, for no good reason, than there are probably lazy and ignorant morons involved in terrorism that are so incompetent that they don't bother to encrypt their emails and computers. The smart and experienced will rarely be caught.

Just use PGP if the snooping stuff bothers you, because they can intercept any email they choose anyway, and will do so without compunction. Having developed a sort of bureaucratic/personal sociopathy - having no compunction - they presume they are doing nothing wrong.

And some monk stuff: If you have any compunction about anything you think or do, you'll become more at peace if you stop thinking and doing those things. Or understand when, why and the extent they are necessary to increase the peace of mind of many. The terrorists (those who wish to cause suffering), likely feel differently.

In general, all of everyone's thoughts and activities would be best used for the purpose of increasing their own, and/or others peace of mind - decreasing suffering - and in so doing, disturbing the fewest possible. Just common sense that gets obscured by neuroses, insecurities and confusion. Drugs, alcohol and perverse behavior won't get you there. Be good, do good, don't sweat the small stuff, and you'll find peace . . .

Sorry for the sermon.

Posted by:

03 May 2013

Haven't you people ever heard of PGP? It's currently available free, under the GNU license, at, or for a Windows installer and graphical front end at, or, for Mac users,

Other alternatives are the Enlocked browser extension at for most browsers, including mobile), or using Hushmail at

If you want privacy, just encrypt your email (and/or your text messaging applications). It's very easy to do...
The PGP program was recently purchased by Symantec, so is no longer free. The current release of their program can usually be downloaded from various bit torrent sites.

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