How Private Are Your Emails?

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Everybody knows that law enforcement can’t just storm into your house and rummage through your desks and drawers. They need a warrant that shows that they have probable cause to search your belongings. But how about your emails, facebook pictures and stored items in the cloud? Nowadays so much of our communications, our whole life is online, that’s it’s worth to take a closer look. How private are your emails?

According to the the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) from 1986 – when, by the way, most people hadn’t had emails and social media was not invented – law enforcement does not need a warrant for emails older than six months. The lawmakers back in 1986 assumed that if somebody hadn’t downloaded and deleted an email within six months it could be considered “abandoned” and would therefore not require strict privacy protections. Of course they did not know that email providers would also offer large storage for their users. Under the law, all the police need to search your inbox and read all emails that are older than six months or have previously been opened, is a subpoena issued without a judge’s approval.

In late November the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the requirement for police to obtain a warrant before getting access to people’s emails and other forms of online communications. Some lawmakers are already proposing amendments to the measure. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa suggested email searches without a warrant for time sensitive investigations like abductions, child pornography and rape cases. The senate is likely going to vote on the measure next year.

Author: Laura Hien
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