WASHINGTON – Your emails are not nearly as private as you think.
The downfall of CIA Director David Petraeus demonstrates how easy it is for federal law-enforcement agents to examine emails and computer records if they believe a crime was committed. With subpoenas and warrants, the FBI and other investigating agencies routinely gain access to electronic inboxes and information about email accounts offered by Google, Yahoo and other Internet providers.
“The government can’t just wander through your emails just because they’d like to know what you’re thinking or doing,” said Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security and now in private law practice. “But if the government is investigating a crime, it has a lot of authority to review people’s emails.”
Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, federal authorities need only a subpoena approved by a federal prosecutor – not a judge – to obtain electronic messages that are 6 months old or older. To get more recent communications, a warrant from a judge is required. This is a higher standard requiring proof of probable cause a crime is being committed.
Public interest groups are pressing Congress for the law to be updated because it was written a quarter-century ago when most emails were deleted after a few months because the cost of storing them indefinitely was prohibitive. Now, “cloud computing” services provide huge amounts of inexpensive storage capacity. Other technological advances, such as mobile phones, have increased the amount of communications that are kept in electronic warehouses and can be reviewed by law enforcement authorities carrying a subpoena.
“Technology has evolved in a way that makes the content of more communications available to law enforcement without judicial authorization, and at a very low level of suspicion,” said Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, has proposed changing the law to require a warrant for all Internet communications regardless of their age. But law enforcement officials have resisted because they said it would undercut their ability to catch criminals.
A subpoena is usually sufficient to require Internet companies to reveal names and any other information that they have that would identify the owner of a particular email account. Google, which operates the widely used Gmail service, complied with more than 90 percent of the nearly 12,300 requests it received in 2011 from the U.S. government for data about its users, according to figures from the company.
Even if a Gmail account is created with a fictitious name, there are other ways to track down the user. Logs of when messages are sent reveal the Internet address the user used to log onto the account. Matching times and dates with locations allow investigators to piece together the chain.
A Gmail account figured prominently in the FBI investigation that led to Petraeus’ stunning resignation last week as the nation’s spy chief. Petraeus, a retired Army general, stepped down after he confessed to an extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, an Army Reserve officer and his biographer.