Your Gmail account is fair game for cops or feds, says US judge

Filed Under: Data loss, Featured, Google, Law & order, Privacy

Image of judge's wig courtesy of ShutterstockA New York court on Thursday opened up our entire Gmail accounts to feds or cops with warrants, in spite of two recent decisions that went against similar requests.

Besides the decision itself, which concerns a money-laundering investigation, New York District Judge Gabriel Gorenstein's decision was unusual in that the he actually took the trouble to write a lengthy explanation.

He wrote that email accounts are the same as hard drives, as far as the law was concerned, meaning they can be seized in their entirety when investigators show up with a warrant.

From his opinion:

In the context of suppression motions, courts have routinely upheld the seizure or copying of hard drives and other storage devices in order to effectuate a proper search for the categories of documents or files listed in a warrant.

At the heart of the case is an investigation in which the FBI had probable cause to believe that its target had been using an email account to engage in criminal activity and that emails and other information in his Google account would provide evidence of his crimes.

The search warrant directs Google to cough up everything associated with the email account, including all emails, whether they were sent, received, or just stored as drafts.

It also went after everything in the target's address book.

The warrant contained no search protocol.

Nor did it put any limits on how much time the government has to review whatever information Google discloses or require the government to destruct that material.

In other words, the sweeping nature of the warrant in this case is similar to other recent cases in which judges denied warrants because they gave the government access to too many emails that weren't relevant to the crimes under investigation.

In fact, Gorenstein's ruling is just part of a recent public debate that has seen judges declare such searches overly broad.

In April, a Washington, DC, court rejected a warrant for the Apple email account of a defense contractor as part of a kickback investigation - one of several similar opinions he has authored recently.

And then, last year, a Kansas court denied warrant applications for emails and records at Google, Verizon, Yahoo!, Microsoft unit Skype and GoDaddy in a stolen computer equipment case.

In his decision to green-light the search warrant in the ongoing investigation, Gorenstein noted that very few criminals keep all their illegal activity information in a folder marked "drug records", for example.

Courts have long recognised the practical need for law enforcement to exercise dominion over documents not within the scope of the warrant in order to determine whether they fall within the warrant.

In the case of electronic evidence, which typically consists of enormous amounts of undifferentiated information and documents, courts have recognised that a search for documents or files responsive to a warrant cannot possibly be accomplished during an on-site search.

Civil rights advocates, understandably, didn't much like the judge's decision. They did, however, like the fact that Gorenstein went to the trouble of providing his rationale.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Hanni Fakhoury, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

The more voices and opinions we can add to the discussion, the better.

I agree. Gorenstein's decision may come down on the side of overly broad search warrants, but at least he gave some context for his conclusions.

The discussion is far from over. This judge gets credit, at least, for acknowledging that.

Image of judge's wig courtesy of Shutterstock.

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6 Responses to Your Gmail account is fair game for cops or feds, says US judge

  1. Bob Pratt · 58 days ago

    I'm always one step ahead of them - last week I emailed my wife I was going shopping on Wednesday - and then did it on Friday. Didn't see Jack Bauer anywhere.

  2. JR · 57 days ago

    I don't see an issue if they have a warrant... the problem is all the things they are doing without a warrant.

  3. My only objections or concerns would be since they now have this authority;

    a) does this only apply to Gmail or to any\all messaging services?

    b) do I have the right to be notified by Gmail or LE that my email has been searched, considering that someone under investigation does not have to be made aware of all warrants against them? If so, at what point in the investigation?

    c) what happens to LE when they obtain access to an email account and find nothing, are they held to a high standard to obtain such a warrant?

  4. USA · 57 days ago

    they did not open "our" accounts they let them have the email of someone who is charged with a crime. BIG difference.

  5. Bob · 57 days ago

    Innocent until proven guilty. They are suspected, The MAN can get warrants without arresting anyone. Makes you wonder why they want warrant less info like the NSA. You may not need the money, but when you got $20's lying on the ground who's going to stop you from picking one up? Do you suspect that the gov. will never do anything wrong? Well they think the same of you. Which makes all of us a suspect at some time or other. THE CONSTITUTION and other due process is the only thing that keeps innocent people innocent. The warrant is too broad, too many $20's. At least it's a warrant.

    • K Summers · 41 days ago

      Certain none and government departments have too mush power.
      We should be asking:
      How is this information being used ?
      Is it for national security ? or their gain, in other matters that they do not want us to know. If this is the case what is it ?
      " All of this private information in the wrong hands".
      Who does it go to when 2nd and 3rd parties involved in the process ?
      How can they 100% verify it is safe.

      Too much information is readily available at the click of a button.
      Years ago a hacker broke in to the Pentagon computer, (which should be completely secure), but via more technology, our private lives, and even corporate information systems are less private via technology).
      The more power certain people have the more they want.
      The less amount of times that peoples personal information is shared, the less chance in leaks. The problem we have, is genuine security.
      Systems are already be in place to do this, but through stupidity, and a lack on commonsense this is not working, why not use or tweak existing systems, instead of more public frightening related to modern threats, which is giving in to BIG BROTHER. (They are watching us, but who is watching them ?).
      We trust that the government and security organisations have our best interests at heart.
      Does The films: "Enemy of The State" "The Net" Or "Die Hard 5" Ring a bell.
      Please ignore my bleak outlook, it won't ever go that bad, or could it?

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.