The FBI in my Inbox?


It’s alarming to read that, depending on whom you believe, the FBI feels it has the legal right to access your email messages without having to obtain a search warrant. I know I don’t have anything particularly damning in my personal email account, but it’s the principle of the matter that’s the problem. (And consider errors and leaks. Nothing in my email inbox is going to send me to jail, but it could contain many other things of a sensitive nature. Financial information. Industry dialog. Customer communication. Et cetera. Keeping that out of anybody else’s possession is the best way from anything leaking or being misused.
The bummer is that there doesn’t seem to be any way for the average joe user like you or me to do anything about it. According to that Marketwatch article, you could download all your email messages to your hard drive (clunky), encrypt emails when sending them (even more clunky), or move to an “off shore” email service (which simply exchanges one privacy concern for another).
The only bit of good news is that at least in the four states of the Sixth Circuit (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee), the Warhsak ruling prohibits the FBI from obtaining email messages without a warrant. The bad news is, that seems to apply only to those four states.

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  • Wouldn’t that leave the decision up to the ESP? I would feel that the FBI cant force an ESP to provide any information without a warrant. I’m not 100% certain on the FBI’s jurisdiction, but I would expect that most ESPs would stand behind their privacy policy until the documents are properly requested via warrant.

  • This is a subject where my concern has been growing recently. Like you, I have nothing in my inbox that will put me in a jumpsuit. Also like you, it doesn’t make this any less concerning that the government can seize many kinds of electronic records without warrants.
    Knowing you’re not a lawyer, I am curious what your thoughts are for people who live in the 4 states covered by the Sixth Circuit when their mail is likely on servers in other states. Do you think the FBI still needs a warrant?

  • Good point, Richard. This reminds me of the opposite too. I seem to recall some hosting companies willingly giving up information without a warrant if the authorities so much as express an interest.

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