U.S. Court Rules Warrants Needed to Spy on Emails

Thursday, December 16, 2010
(graphic: Target.com)
If the government wants to see your emails stored by an Internet service provider, they first will have to get a warrant. The government used to skip getting a warrant, based on a 1986 law, the Stored Communications Act, granting such power. But a ruling on December 14 by a federal appeals court has nullified the 1986 statute and federal attorneys now will have to seek out a judge and demonstrate probable cause before obtaining a warrant for email searches.
“The government may not compel a commercial ISP to turn over the contents of a subscriber’s e-mails without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause,” wrote the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case U.S. v. Warshak.
This is the first time that a federal court has extended Fourth Amendment rights to email communications.
That case centered on Steven Warshak, founder of an Ohio herbal-supplement company that marketed male-enhancement pills. As part of a fraud investigation, the government obtained thousands of his emails from his ISP without a warrant—which led to the appellate decision after Warshak challenged his conviction.
-Noel Brinkerhoff
United States v. Steven Warshak (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)


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