When you finish reading your e-mail, how do you dispose of it? Do you “Permanently Delete” it? Do you just send it to the “Trash” folder or let it go to the “Read Mail” folder and have it sit in either of those folders until it disappears? Well, if you don’t “Permanently Delete”, your privacy can be at risk because once those old e-mails reach 180 days old, any government agency can read them. You don’t have to be notified and they don’t need a search warrant to do this.
The only time a search warrant is necessary to read old e-mails is if those e-mails were saved to your hard drive. However, if you use an e-mail provider that stores your old mail in a cloud server (G-Mail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail, Hotmail, etc), once that mail has been sitting unopened for 180 days, it’s considered “legally abandoned”. When e-mail is abandoned, it’s there for the taking.
In 1986, ECPA (the Electronic Communications Privacy Act) was put in place. Once enacted, it gave government agencies the right to seize old e-mails from the e-mail providers. At the time, there really was not a big risk to privacy since in 1986, storage space was so small that as soon as an e-mail was read, it was deleted. It was rare that any e-mail would sit in storage just taking up valuable space. Things have changed a lot since then. The cloud servers of today offer pretty much an unlimited amount of storage space so deleting old e-mail is no longer necessary. The ECPA hasn’t been amended since it was passed, which means it’s pretty worthless considering how much technology has grown.
Citing the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU questioned the IRS on their practices of obtaining the e-mail of ordinary citizens. According to the IRS, their criminal investigation department does not get warrants when they request old e-mails.
The ACLU then cited the Freedom of Information Act when requesting the same information about old e-mails to the FBI. The FBI answered by implying that they, too, do not obtain warrants, however, they wouldn’t admit to it flat out. The FBI did give the ACLU excerpts from two of their Domestic Investigations and Operations Guides. Both guides (one dated 2008 and the other dated 2012) stated: “FBI agents only need a warrant for emails or other electronic communications that are unopened and less than 180 days old.”
The IRS and FBI examples show that an amendment to ECPA is long over-due. There has been a law in place since 1877 which makes it necessary for any government agency to obtain a search warrant if they want to read the mail of US citizens that has been sent via the US Postal Service. Now we need protection like this to include any and all electronic communications as well. Until that amendment happens, make sure you keep your privacy safe by always clicking on “Delete Permanently” when you finish reading your e-mails. Some may think this is necessary only to cover criminal activities, but it’s not; it’s simply a matter of personal privacy.
Please take the time to download the Internet Privacy Guide located at the top of this page. It’s completely free, yet it offers valuable suggestions on how to keep your privacy safe.Tags: email privacy, government invades your privacy, Invasion of Privacy, Privacy Issues, Privacy Rights, Privacy risks