A US judge has ruled that the Feds can have access to a Gmail user’s entire account to search for evidence in a money laundering case, a decision which clashes with at least two other recent rulings on email privacy.
New York District Judge Gabriel Gorenstein said in an opinion that email accounts were the same as hard drives as far as the law was concerned, which means they can be seized in their entirety when the cops have a warrant.
The judge issued the opinion, which explains his decision to allow prosecutors access to the Gmail account in the criminal case, because it conflicts with at least two other recent rulings. Other judges have previously said that handing out sweeping warrants was giving government agencies too much access to far too many emails, instead of just the relevant ones.
Gorenstein cited two other rulings in particular: one in the District of Columbia, and one in Kansas. In Washington DC, judge John Facciola rejected a warrant application to seize the contents of an Apple email account belonging to a defence contractor in a bribery case, while in Kansas the judge denied warrants for emails and other info stored by Google, Verizon, Yahoo!, Skype and GoDaddy in a case regarding a stolen computer.
In both cases the warrant applications were rejected because of a lack of limits on what the authorities would sweep up by gaining access to entire email accounts.
However, other cases have gone the other way. Earlier this year, the same New York court told Microsoft it had to hand over email information stored in a data centre in Ireland. Redmond has argued against the decision and is appealing against it because the data is held overseas. Apple, Verizon, Cisco and other tech firms, along with lobby groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have filed briefs supporting Microsoft’s position.
In his ruling, Gorenstein pointed out that very few criminals keep all their illegal activity information in a folder marked “drug records”.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
The judge said that courts already allowed cops to seize and search hard drives, meaning email accounts shouldn’t be any different. ®