US Judge Backs Law Enforcement Access To Email Account

Brett Smith for – Your Universe Online

Seen as a defeat for internet privacy advocates, a US District Court judge has approved a warrant to access the entire contents of a Gmail account owned by a person being investigated for their involvement in a money laundering scheme, according to Reuters.

In defending the decision, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein said courts have a history of authorizing law enforcement to search documents in trying to determine if they fall under the auspices of a warrant.

The New York judge’s decision goes against similar decisions made by several other judges, including a District of Columbia judge who said the government should not be allowed access to an entire email account without an “established probable cause.”

Other previous decisions have said law enforcement should not be able to have on-site access to hard drives of computers and other storage devices, yet have allowed for the seizure or copying of storage devices, Judge Gorenstein noted.

“We perceive no constitutionally significant difference between the searches of hard drives just discussed and searches of email accounts,” the judge wrote, according to PCWorld. “Indeed, in many cases, the data in an email account will be less expansive than the information that is typically contained on a hard drive.”

The DC court decision on the case said Google could furnish law enforcement with the relevant materials, but Gorenstein wrote that Google employees would have to be briefed and trained on the case for that to happen.

“While an agent steeped in the investigation could recognize the significance of particular language in emails, an employee of the email host would be incapable of doing so,” he wrote.

Judge Gorenstein did not provide any limitations or timeline for the email investigation to be completed.

“For example, in a drug investigation, it might be obvious based on information from an informant or other source that emails referring to the purchase or importation of ‘dolls’ refers to cocaine, but investigators might only learn as the investigation unfolds that a seemingly innocuous email referring to purchase of ‘potatoes’ also refers to a cocaine shipment,” the judge wrote.

In April, another New York judge said prosecutors can compel Microsoft to turn over emails stored in an Ireland data center, Reuters reported. The Seattle company appealed the decision and has received support in the case from Verizon, AT&T and Apple. A hearing for that case has been set for July 31 before US District Judge Loretta Preska in New York.

While courts are debating over whether the government should have access to emails in the course of a criminal investigation, a prominent group of lawyers recently argued that loved ones of a deceased individual should gain access to any and all digital accounts unless specified differently in a legal will.

If this recommendation from the Uniform Law Commission becomes state law, access to online accounts could become a major component of estate planning. Information in these accounts could theoretically be used in the passing on of assets or shaping of the deceased’s legacy.