​IRS Warrantless Email Search May Violate Fourth Amendment​​

The Internal Revenue Service says it can read your email without a search warrant and their lawyers have said that Americans enjoy “generally no privacy” when it comes to their online communication.

IRS Warrantless Email Search

In fact, that online communication does include email, Facebook chats, Twitter, direct messages, and other similar technologies.

This new revelation places the IRS at odds with a growing sentiment among many judges and legislators who believe that Americans’ e-mail messages should be protected from warrantless search and seizure. They say e-mail should be protected by the same Fourth Amendment privacy standards that require search warrants for hard drives in someone’s home, or a physical letter in a filing cabinet.

An IRS 2009 Search Warrant Handbook obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union argues that “emails and other transmissions generally lose their reasonable expectation of privacy and thus their Fourth Amendment protection once they have been sent from an individual’s computer.” The handbook was prepared by the Office of Chief Counsel for the Criminal Tax Division and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney at the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, said in a blog post that the IRS’s view of privacy rights violates the Fourth Amendment.

The IRS continued to take the same position, the documents indicate, even after a federal appeals court ruled in the 2010 case U.S. v. Warshak that Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their e-mail. A few e-mail providers, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook, but not all, have taken the position that Warshak mandates warrants for e-mail.