Feds: We can read all your email and you'll never know
By Clark D. Cunningham, Georgia State University
The federal government is getting access to the contents of entire email accounts by using an ancient procedure – the search warrant – with a new, sinister twist: secret court proceedings. Photo by MilousSK/Shutterstock
Fear of hackers reading private emails in cloud-based systems like Microsoft Outlook, Gmail or Yahoo has recently sent regular people and public officials scrambling to delete entire accounts full of messages dating back years. What we don't expect is our own government to hack our email – but it's happening. Federal court cases going on right now are revealing that federal officials can read all your email without your knowledge.
The federal government is getting access to the contents of entire email accounts by using an ancient procedure – the search warrant – with a new, sinister twist: secret court proceedings.
The earliest search warrants had a very limited purpose – authorizing entry to private premises to find and recover stolen goods. During the era of the American Revolution, British authorities abused this power to conduct dragnet searches of colonial homes and to seize people's private papers looking for evidence of political resistance.
To prevent the new federal government from engaging in that sort of tyranny, special controls over search warrants were written into the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. But these constitutional provisions are failing to protect our personal documents if they are stored in the cloud or on our smartphones.
Fortunately, the government's efforts are finally being made public, thanks to legal battles taken up by Apple, Microsoft and other major companies. But the feds are fighting back, using even more subversive legal tactics.
Searching in secret
To get these warrants in the first place, the feds are using the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed in 1986 – long before widespread use of cloud-based email and smartphones. That law allows the government to use a warrant to get electronic communications from the company providing the service – rather than the true owner of the email account, the person who uses it.
But relatively little notice has come to a similar Microsoft effort on behalf of customers that began in April 2016. The company's suit argued that search warrants delivered to Microsoft for customers' emails are violating regular people's constitutional rights. (It also argued that being gagged violates Microsoft's own First Amendment rights.)
It's very difficult to get a copy of one of these search warrants, thanks to orders sealing files and gagging companies. But in another Microsoft lawsuit against the government a redacted warrant was made part of the court record. It shows how the government asks for – and receives – the power to look at all of a person's email.
On the first page of the warrant, the cloud-based email account is clearly treated as "premises" controlled by Microsoft, not by the email account's owner:
"An application by a federal law enforcement officer or an attorney for the government requests the search of the following ... property located in the Western District of Washington, the premises known and described as the email account [REDACTED]@MSN.COM, which is controlled by Microsoft Corporation."
The Fourth Amendment requires that a search warrant must "particularly describe the things to be seized" and there must be "probable cause" based on sworn testimony that those particular things are evidence of a crime. But this warrant orders Microsoft to turn over "the contents of all emails stored in the account, including copies of emails sent from the account." From the day the account was opened to the date of the warrant, everything must be handed over to the feds.
Reading all of it
In warrants like this, the government is deliberately not limiting itself to the constitutionally required "particular description" of the messages it's looking for. To get away with this, it tells judges that incriminating emails can be hard to find – maybe even hidden with misleading names, dates and file attachments – so their computer forensic experts need access to the whole data base to work their magic.
If the government were serious about obeying the Constitution, when it asks for an entire email account, at least it would write into the warrant limits on its forensic analysis so only emails that are evidence of a crime could be viewed. But this Microsoft warrant says an unspecified "variety of techniques may be employed to search the seized emails," including "email by email review."
If Microsoft wins, then citizens will have the chance to see these search warrants and challenge the ways they violate the Constitution. But the government has come up with a clever – and sinister – argument for throwing the case out of court before it even gets started.
The government has asked the judge in the case to rule that Microsoft has no legal right to raise the constitutional rights of its customers. Anticipating this move, the American Civil Liberties Union asked to join the lawsuit, saying it uses Outlook and wants notice if Microsoft were served with a warrant for its email.
The government's response? The ACLU has no right to sue because it can't prove that there has been or will be a search warrant for its email. Of course the point of the lawsuit is to protect citizens who can't prove they are subject to a search warrant because of the secrecy of the whole process. The government's position is that no one in America has the legal right to challenge the way prosecutors are using this law.
Far from the only risk
The government is taking a similar approach to smartphone data.
Where does this all leave us now? The judge in Ravelo is expected to issue a preliminary ruling on the feds' arguments sometime in October. The government will be filing a final brief on its motion to dismiss the Microsoft case Friday. All Americans should be watching carefully to what happens next in these cases – the government may be watching you without your knowledge.