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MOST Unpleasant surprise: Feds say opened email stored remotely can be accessed without warrant

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 25th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The United States prides itself on privacy for its citizens. It comes as a most, MOST unpleasant surprise to learn that the U.S. federal government says that email stored remotely - on accounts like Google's Gmail, can be freely accessed by government agencies. To this end, various U.S. agencies made 13,753 requests to access privately held Gmail accounts for the year 2012, more than half without warrants - alone.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to statistics released by Google, the total number of users about whom government agencies wanted information also set a record at 31,072. These figures are up from 23,300 in 2011, the first year Google began reporting the data. The discrepancy is on account that government agencies request information on multiple users or accounts at the same time.

More frighteningly, the majority of these 13,753 requests, 6,542 of 8,438 in the latter half of 2012 alone, were done without a search warrant. Google did not make available any detailed data prior to June 2012, nor did it make available which requests came from the federal government and which came from state or local law enforcement agencies.

Google spokesman Chris Gaither said the company only started tracking which type of legal authority - subpoena, court order, or search warrant - was used in the latter half of 2012. The Internet Search Engine giant issues biannual reports on the requests for user data it receives from government agencies from around the world, including ones in the U.S.

Google announced in June 2012 that it had 425 million active Gmail subscribers, making it the largest e-mail provider in the world. Providing users the ability to store documents via its Google Drive service, phone service via Google Voice, YouTube, personal blogs via Blogger, as well as email hosting services for corporate clients through Gmail.

Google keep records of all email and other communication sent through its e-mail, telephone, YouTube, and other services, storing the information on cloud servers. This allows government agencies, local, state, and federal, to access some information without a warrant. (An unfortunate circumstance that prompts some to think, some "clouds" don't always have a silver lining!)

Federal law allows government agencies to access Google's archived email and other data, including chat logs, YouTube user information, voice messages, and blogger information without obtaining a search warrant or establishing probable cause, and Google says that it complies with the vast majority of government requests for data.

The federal law that allows this is known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which says that opened email stored remotely, which is not on a computer's hard drive can be accessed without a warrant.

If the government wants to read the content of an email accessed through Gmail, hear a voicemail message sent over Google's telephone service Google Voice, or read other private content; it must still obtain a search warrant under federal law.

However, information not sent in the body of an email or recorded in a voice message can be obtained by a simple subpoena - which does not require a government agency to show probable cause.

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