New Law Would Block Authorities From Reading Emails

Dennis Faas's picture

A U.S. senator wants to close a legal loophole that allows law enforcement officials to read private emails without first obtaining a warrant.

If successful, the change would mean users of webmail services, such as Gmail and Hotmail, will receive extra protection against prying eyes.

Private email content is currently protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. However, email usage is far greater today than it was then, and new procedures leave open the opportunity for officials to read private emails in secret.

Years ago most email users downloaded their messages, which requires their Internet service provider to transmit the message from its servers to the user's computer. After that, the Internet provider no longer had access to the message.

Except for being electronic, the process wasn't much different than when the post office physically delivered a letter.

Webmail Brings Unwelcome Loophole

Today, most people use webmail services, which allow their emails to reside not only on their own computers, but also on the computers of their email provider, ready for access from any computer.

This is significant because the Privacy Act of 1986 allowed law enforcement officials to access any message without a warrant if it had not been accessed by the recipient for 180 days after it was originally sent. In effect, the law considered such messages to have been abandoned. (Source:

Given how today's webmail services operate, the design of the outdated law creates a major loophole. Technically, officials without a warrant can insist on seeing any webmail message that is six months old or older, even if the user has received the message on his or her computer.

Plan Would Protect All Emails

Senator Patrick Leahy is now proposing an amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act that would close this loophole. It would treat all emails in the same way, forcing police to obtain a warrant before they could access any message, of any vintage, as part of an investigation. (Source:

The amendment is carefully worded in an attempt to cover all electronic communication, including messages on social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter. It's also designed to cover files on remote storage sites, such as Dropbox or SkyDrive.

Leahy's amendment would still allow law enforcement officials access to certain data without a warrant. For example, officials could still demand to see where a person of interest had sent a message from, or to whom he or she had sent it.

Only the actual contents of messages would come under the protection of the new amendment.

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