Law Allows Government to See Who You Are Emailing

By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2011-10-10

Government officials were able to secretly order Google and Internet service provider Sonic to hand over an individual's personal email records as part of their investigation into WikiLeaks.

The United States government managed to get two court orders to compel Google and Sonic to hand over email records belonging to a WikiLeaks volunteer from the past two years, the Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 10. The Jan. 4 court order for Google and April 15 order for Sonic requests email headers, with sender and recipient addresses as well as time and date of the communication, and not the actual contents of the messages.

The information was requested as part of the ongoing investigation against WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange.

As the law stands, government officials do not need a search warrant to access digital data, which includes emails, cellphone-location records and other digital documents. Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, all law enforcement officials have to do is tell a judge the information may be relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. Most importantly, the law does not require the individual to be notified about the search.

Jacob Applebaum, a 28-year old computer science researcher at the University of Washington, is also a spokesman for the Tor Project. The group provides a free software that allows users to go on line anonymously, such as activists trying to avoid government firewalls and surveillance.

A previous court order compelled Twitter to hand over the IP addresses of all the computers which Appelbaum and other volunteers used to access their Twitter accounts and the email addresses of people they communicated with. Twitter fought the order and lost, but successfully won the right to tell Appelbaum what was happening. According to the Wall Street Journal, Twitter has yet to hand over any data.

Google and Sonic also fought initial orders, but when they failed, requested that court orders be unsealed so that they can inform their customers that the government was snooping.

Passed in 1986, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is outdated and doesn't match how people use the World Wide Web. A coalition of technology companies, including Google, Microsoft and AT&T, is lobbying Congress to update the law to require search warrants in more digital investigations.

The law's original author, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said in May the original law is "significantly outdated and outpaced by rapid changes in technology."

Earlier, Associate Deputy Attorney General James A. Baker had told Congress that "raising the standard for obtaining information under ECPA may substantially slow criminal and national security investigations."

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