By Ashby Jones
Here’s a question: Is it kosher for a law enforcement agency to, pursuant to a lawfully granted search warrant, search your Gmail account without telling you?
According to an opinion handed down earlier this year and currently making the rounds on legal blogs (here and here), the answer is yes.
The opinion, handed down by Portland, Ore., federal judge Michael Mosman, doesn’t really delve into the case’s facts. It cuts right to the legal issue: whether the government must notify the subscriber to an email service before the government undertakes a search.
We’re going to excerpt a bit of the opinion here, mostly because it’s, perhaps uncharacteristically for a judicial opinion, engaging and very clearly written. (Bravo, Judge Mosman!). He reasons:
The Fourth Amendment protects our homes from unreasonable searches and seizures, requiring that, absent special circumstances, the government obtain a search warrant based on probable cause before entering. . . . This is strong privacy protection for homes and the items within them in the physical world.
When a person uses the Internet, however, the user’s actions are no longer in his or her physical home; in fact he or she is not truly acting in private space at all. The user is generally accessing the Internet with a network account and computer storage owned by an ISP like Comcast or NetZero. All materials stored online, whether they are e-mails or remotely stored documents, are physically stored on servers owned by an ISP. When we send an e-mail or instant message from the comfort of our own homes to a friend across town the message travels from our computer to computers owned by a third party, the ISP, before being delivered to the intended recipient. Thus, “private” information is actually being held by third-party private companies.
. . .
It is clear that notice is an essential part of the reasonableness calculus in judging searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. The Federal Public Defender has argued that this constitutional notice requirement supports [the view] that the copy of the warrant and receipt . . . must be provided to the subscriber to the e-mail account, rather than just to the ISP. The notice must be provided to the subscriber because the ISP “has a far lesser privacy interest in the content of its subscriber’s e-mails than the subscribers themselves.”
This argument fails to take into account the third party context in this case. If a suspect leaves private documents at his mother’s house and the police obtain a warrant to search his mother’s house, they need only provide a copy of the warrant and a receipt to the mother, even though she is not the “owner” of the documents. (citations omitted). In such a case, it is irrelevant that the suspect had a greater privacy interest in the content of the documents than did his mother. When he left the documents in her possession he no longer has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their contents.
Finally, Judge Mosman concludes with a flourish:
Much of the reluctance to apply traditional notions of third party disclosure to the e-mail context seems to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the lack of privacy we all have in our e-mails. Some people seem to think that they are as private as letters, phone calls, or journal entries. The blunt fact is, they are not.