Yes, The Feds Can Read Your Email (and more)

Category: Privacy

If you need some motivation to catch up on reading your email, consider this: the U.S. federal government can read any unopened email you’ve left on an email provider’s server without obtaining a search warrant. The full story is even more disturbing, but there's something you can do about it. Read on...

Privacy Protection Stalled In Congress

Even if you’ve opened an email, the feds don’t need a warrant to read it if it’s been stored on a third party’s server for more than six months (180 days). Email you’ve sent is also subject to warrantless searches.

Is this a new law passed by Congress that allows snooping into your email privacy? Actually, no. It's been the law of the land for almost 30 years. Lawmakers are trying to change that, but there's a roadblock. More on that later...

You can thank the antiquated Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 for this gaping loophole in privacy protection. Written in the age of dialup modems and PCs that supported a maximum of 640 KB of RAM, the ECPA was watered down by law enforcement lobbyists and a Congress that had little clue what it was doing with this new-fangled Intertube thingie.
Email Privact Act

Law enforcement argued that unopened messages stored on a third-party server were still “in transit” and not yet the recipient’s property, therefore no warrant was required to search them. Messages left undeleted for more than six months were considered “abandoned property” like trash put out on the curb; the recipient had relinquished ownership so the 4th Amendment did not apply.

The ECPA applies to all “electronic communications,” not just email. Facebook posts and private messages; text messages; Twitter posts and direct (private, one-to-one) messages; blog posts marked “unpublished;” and just about anything you put online and thought was private.

Deleted Doesn't Mean Gone

Encryption is one way to thwart snoopers and hackers from poking their noses into your email. See my article Are You Encrypting Your Email? for some practical tips on protecting your emails.

Back in the ‘80s, storage space was expensive and scarce, so “deleted” actually meant “gone.” But nowadays, Google Mail, Facebook, and some other third party service providers archive users’ content by default. So all those old messages are subject to search by the FBI, the NSA, and even the IRS’ criminal investigations unit.

Obviously, things have changed since 1986. Users’ expectations of privacy are greater. Even Congress gets that; over 280 House Representatives have co-sponsored the Email Privacy Act, a bipartisan effort to require search warrants for ALL email and prohibit service providers from divulging users’ email to government agents without a warrant. The EPA was introduced in 2013 and made it through committees, but Congress adjourned in 2014 without voting on it. It was re-introduced in the 2014-2015 session.

The problem is that this bill is stalled in the House Judiciary Committee. The committee chairman, Bob Goodlatte (R-VA, 6th), has said that he may “have some potential modifications to the end product.” Once the EPA clears this bottleneck, it still has to move through the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.

If you would like to encourage Rep. Goodlatte to get busy on the Email Privacy Act (H. R. 699), you can send him email via his House Web form. This form only accepts messages from addresses in Virginia's 6th Congressional District. You can find phone and fax numbers at the bottom of the page, and Rep. Goodlatte also has a Facebook page which allows people to send a message.

The Senate version of the EPA (S.356) has been read twice and now sits on the “to-do list” of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Chuck Grassley (R-IA). His contact form accepts messages regardless of your location.

Let's Get 'Er Done!

The ECPA’s warrantless search provisions have been struck down in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals district (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee). In those States only, a probable-cause search warrant is required. Note that the end user can be located anywhere; it’s the service provider’s server(s) that are protected from warrantless searches if the server(s) are located in any of those four States.

It is unconscionable for two men to thwart the will of a majority of Congress, virtually the entire tech industry, every privacy and civil rights organization, not to mention the American people. It’s time to light a fire under Grassley and Goodlatte, and get this much-needed update of the ECPA passed before Congress adjourns in late December. Otherwise, we’ll have to start all over again next year.

I encourage you to visit the links I gave above, and send a personal message to the Congressman and the Senator. Tell them you support the Email Privacy Act, and encourage them to get it done! Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
Ask Your Computer or Internet Question

  (Enter your question in the box above.)

It's Guaranteed to Make You Smarter...

AskBob Updates: Boost your Internet IQ & solve computer problems.
Get your FREE Subscription!


Email:

Check out other articles in this category:



Link to this article from your site or blog. Just copy and paste from this box:

This article was posted by on 17 Jul 2015


For Fun: Buy Bob a Snickers.

Prev Article:
Dump Adobe Flash NOW?

The Top Twenty
Next Article:
Is Windows 10 WiFi Sense Nonsense?

Most recent comments on "Yes, The Feds Can Read Your Email (and more)"

(See all 21 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Harold
17 Jul 2015

Contacting Rep. Goodlatte will do no good whatsoever. He's closely allied to the Koch Bros. and the Tea Party and is basically a worthless representative of the people. He cares nothing about our rights.


Posted by:

Maggi
17 Jul 2015

Did you post this elsewhere? I'd like to pass on your message but can't use this page with all the ads.


Posted by:

Bill
17 Jul 2015

Darlene: As another columnist I read says about ISPs reading your email - You just aren't that interesting.


Posted by:

Barry
17 Jul 2015

"...what do I care if the feds read my email?"

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and often requires police to get search warrants before encroaching on your privacy. Americans should be appalled that the government can snoop into their emails without such a warrant.



Posted by:

Robert Kemper
17 Jul 2015

Thanks Bob for all of yuor detailed information
on e-mail encryption. Every bit that we can get
is always welcome, and a great help.


Posted by:

Dave
17 Jul 2015

I've heard this tired argument so many times now, I can't believe people are still using it. To the Feds "law abiding" means not challenging their authority. So long as you're a non-thinking robocitizen, yeah, you're fine, Darlene. You wouldn't be writing emails interesting enough for anyone to read anyway. But if you're a Martin Luther King or someone fighting for change, you don't have to break any laws to raise their ire. You just have to oppose their endless wars, murders, and economic rape of the people. Do that, and then decide if you care whether the secret police state reads your emails.


Posted by:

RichF
17 Jul 2015

I fear the public's stupidity in regards to government spying on them spells doom for our liberties. Among other problems, the spying led to the IRS illegally auditing the taxes for groups they deemed against the current administration. You had an agent spying on his ex-wife (not a terrorist). Multiply that by the thousands of agents with their ears to our communications and personal axes to grind. The government has SECRET courts to adjudicate cases involved in their spying. Once you relinquish your freedoms it will be impossible to reclaim them. Snowden is despised by all the POLITICIANS that passed these spying laws and is treated with disdain by the majority of the population and is exiled out of the country instead of being seen a a hero for trying to protect our LIBERTIES. These are liberties that our military has fought and DIED for so long to preserve. We’re not too far away from the point where the military will be protecting the government from its citizens (US - you and me). Shame on all of us.


Posted by:

Bob K
18 Jul 2015


It's quiet obvious that we have lost out privacy a long, long time ago, so why would I care about the government reading my email.


Posted by:

Sarah L
18 Jul 2015

E-mail is treated so opposite to real mail, on paper. My first class mail is mine, interfering with the mail is a crime. Sending me unwanted offensive mail is another crime. Now I learn my private communications via e-mail are not private because they are stored on a server, the cloud. I fill up my own computer with mail back ups, too. I guess those are safe. But the rest is open to anyone, including law enforcement without a warrant.

Nothing to hide, that is a strange view in my mind. Privacy is an important right to me; I release my information as I wish to do so. And I know that many things I might write in the context of my personal life, could look totally different when plucked out randomly by someone looking for problems with me. I speak of other people in my life, and that makes my notes and letters a risk to them, too. That is not persuasive to me, nothing to hide.


Posted by:

Sarah L
18 Jul 2015

E-mail is treated so opposite to real mail, on paper. My first class mail is mine, interfering with the mail is a crime. Sending me unwanted offensive mail is another crime. Now I learn my private communications via e-mail are not private because they are stored on a server, the cloud. I fill up my own computer with mail back ups, too. I guess those are safe. But the rest is open to anyone, including law enforcement without a warrant.

Nothing to hide, that is a strange view in my mind. Privacy is an important right to me; I release my information as I wish to do so. And I know that many things I might write in the context of my personal life, could look totally different when plucked out randomly by someone looking for problems with me. I speak of other people in my life, and that makes my notes and letters a risk to them, too. That is not persuasive to me, nothing to hide.


Posted by:

CHET
18 Jul 2015

Free Encryption For Everyone
https://www.encryptfree.com/


Posted by:

Ron
18 Jul 2015

Since you have nothing to hide, you will be OK with me walking into your home anytime I want and looking into anything I want whenever I want?


Posted by:

Joe Gillam
18 Jul 2015

When I put MY TRASH at the curb it remain my property until picked up by the city, then it's their property. It the police want to search my trash they can not legally do so until it is in the hand of the city, or they get a warrant. My trash is not abandoned property. It is placed at my curb in the designated transfer point.


Posted by:

Daiel
18 Jul 2015

Leaders from both major political parties have purposely encroached on our privacy. They purposely delay passing the above acts because they still desire the power. I'm sure there are a few misguided useful tools who legitimately think we need things as they are to help fight terrorism. Instead of taking stabs at each other, let's work together to get the bills passed. I will today, how about you?


Posted by:

Daniel
18 Jul 2015

I have done the bare minimum: I contacted both the Congressman and the Senator. How about all you readers out there?


Posted by:

Wayne Hathaway
20 Jul 2015

I see the phrase "just about anything you put online and thought was private" in this post.

Excuse me? Isn't that like saying "anything you leave in your driveway and thought nobody would see"?

Come on, people. If you want it to be treated as private, then keep it private. I taught computer networking for many years, and I always told my students to never put anything in an email that you wouldn't post on a bulletin board. Now people are actually posting things on virtual bulletin boards and yet they are still expecting them to be private. Yeah, right.


Posted by:

Guy
20 Jul 2015

Bob, there is a way around this snooping. Just get an address from "ProtonMail.ch" and all is encrypted on both ends if the other user has a like address. If the other user has an address from say, MSN then the encryption is lost. ProtonMail is hosted in Switzerland and beyond the jurisdiction of US authorities and doesn't have the encryption key for your messages anyhow. Just thought I'd mention that.


Posted by:

David
21 Jul 2015

Darlene: "Please tell me: if I am a law abiding citizen with nothing to hide, what do I care if the Feds read my email? "

If I'm a law-abiding citizen with nothing to hide, what do I care if the Feds break into my house while I'm out and go through my dresser, medicine cabinet, and snail mail? What do I care if they hack into my computer while they're there, and look at everything on that?


Posted by:

the oncoming storm
02 Aug 2015

darlene: "Please tell me: if I am a law abiding citizen with nothing to hide, what do I care if the Feds read my email?"

really?! what keeps you from becoming a criminal is up to the discretion of the government.

putting it more plainly, what you do today that allows you to be a law abiding citizen one day may make you a criminal, or at the least worthy of being put on a watch list, the next day or a month down the road. all because they passed a law or executive order without your knowledge that criminalizes some thing or another that you do now. that's just the voice of idiocy.


Posted by:

Michael Brose
03 Aug 2015

Seems "1984" is getting closer every day.


There's more reader feedback... See all 21 comments for this article.

Post your Comments, Questions or Suggestions

*     *     (* = Required field)

    (Your email address will not be published)
(you may use HTML tags for style)

YES... spelling, punctuation, grammar and proper use of UPPER/lower case are important! And please limit your remarks to 3-4 paragraphs. If you want to see your comment posted, pay attention to these items.

All comments are previewed, and may be edited before posting.

NOTE: Please, post comments on this article ONLY.
If you want to ask a question click here.

Free Tech Support -- Ask Bob Rankin
RSS   Add to My Yahoo!   Feedburner Feed
Subscribe to AskBobRankin Updates: Free Newsletter
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved
Privacy Policy -- See my profile on Google.


Article information: AskBobRankin -- Yes, The Feds Can Read Your Email (and more) (Posted: 17 Jul 2015)
Source: https://askbobrankin.com/yes_the_feds_can_read_your_email_and_more.html
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved