The U.S. Government Can Legally Access Your Old Emails and It Wants To Keep It That Way

The U.S. Government Can Legally Access Your Old Emails and It Wants To Keep It That Way

As if Americans didn’t have enough to worry about for our government, according to a new report from Mashable, the U.S. government can legally access our old emails and they are fighting to make sure that continues.


Many people around the globe might assume these days that the U.S. government can enact some shady magic called the NSA to access any email it wants, even if that shady magic is considered by some to be illegal.

But how many people—particularly U.S. residents—know that the American government technically has perfectly legal access to everyone’s emails, so long as it says those digital notes might be useful for an investigation and the emails are more than 180 days old?

That’s what U.S. law says as it was written in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in 1986, and the government made very clear earlier this month that it would like the law to stay that way, even if privacy law experts think this rule is so archaic it may as well be collecting dust in a museum.

The U.S. is currently battling Microsoft in a court case in which Microsoft says the government should require a warrant before it can go plundering through emails that originate inside or outside the U.S., even if the company has access to that correspondence and could provide it. The government responded to Microsoft’s assertion on March 9 with this:

“Because the emails sought in this investigation are now more than 180 days old, the plain language of the [Stored Communications Act of the ECPA] would authorize the government to use a subpoena to compel disclosure of everything it sought pursuant to the Warrant.”

The Department of Justice has long argued that citizens don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their old emails, according to experts, even though a government official would be violating the Fourth Amendment if they barged into a home and started reading through a person’s old letters.

Some digital privacy experts have to stifle a sort of stunned laughter when they talk about why a law written to govern email privacy in 1986 still has so much relevance.

“A lot has changed since Ronald Reagan was in office,” Bradley Shear, a lawyer who focuses on digital law, told Mashable. “Since that law was enacted we’ve gone through an entire technological revolution.”

Digital storage wasn’t the same three decades ago. As Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, put it to Mashable: People used to download any important information onto their own hard drives after it was online for a while. Now, important information is everywhere.

They can justify it all they want, but the government has absolutely no right to our emails and the sooner we establish a “no means no” assertiveness with an ever-encroaching government, the better off we all will be.

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