Government officials who want to read any emails sent and received by Americans more than six months ago can do so without a search warrant, Lindsay Wise of McClatchy reports.
Emails older than 180 days are fair game to federal agents who can access your old documents using the administrative subpoena power given the government by a loophole in The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.
The act, which restricts government access to electronic data and stored electronic communications, was passed before the internet went mainstream — that is, way before anyone had an email account. As a result, the law is outdated and does not protect the kind of consumer data people share, store, and use nowadays.
“Some people think Congress did a pretty good job in 1986 seeing the future, but that was before the World Wide Web,” Susan Freiwald, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and an expert in electronic surveillance law, told the New York Times in 2011. “The law can’t be expected to keep up without amendments.”
Incidentally, the law states that anything older than 6 months is considered “abandoned” by the user and accessible to government officials without a search warrant.
“The government is essentially using an arcane loophole to breach the privacy rights of Americans,” Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas told McClatchy. “They couldn’t kick down your door and seize the documents on your desk, but they could send a request to Google and ask for all the documents that are in your Gmail account.
McClatchy notes that “even deleted files still could be fair game as long as copies exist on a third-party server somewhere.”
Americans have been wary of government surveillance ever since Edward Snowden outed the NSA for spying on citizens back in 2013. Riding on this wave of bipartisan and constituent support for digital privacy, Yoder introduced a bill earlier this month called the Email Privacy Act that most members of the House have already promised to back.
“I don’t know that any bill has as many co-sponsors, so it may be one of the fastest bills out of the gate in the new Congress,” Yoder said.