Uncle Sam wants you -- and your email

Due to an ancient law, the feds could eavesdrop on your electronic communications, and you'd be the last to find out

Who's reading your email, besides you? If you send it from work, it's probably your boss or some rogue tech admin. If you send it from home, it may be your spouse, your kids, or your nosy neighbors. (I told you not to write your password on a Post-it note or leave your Wi-Fi router open.) From an Internet café? Probably some slacker with a goatee, unless you remembered to log out first and/or encrypt your connection.

And if you send or receive email from any of those places, your Uncle may also be reading it -- you know, the guy with the top hat, the snowy beard, and the fondness for red-white-and-blue ensembles? Him.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Woody Leonhard has disturbing details on how long mobile phone companies keep your records. | Want to cash in on your IT experiences? InfoWorld is looking for stories of an amazing or amusing IT adventure, lesson learned, or tales from the trenches. Send your story to offtherecord@infoworld.com. If we publish it, we'll keep you anonymous and send you a $50 American Express gift cheque. ]

That goes double if you work for companies the U.S. government has a keen interest in, such as WikipediaLeaks or the Tor Project. Jacob Applebaum works for both -- as a volunteer for the notorious whistle-blowing operation and as a developer for Tor, a technology that anonymizes communications across the Web and is used by WikiLeaks leakers, as well as dissidents in repressive regimes around the globe.

A story in today's Wall Street Journal reveals how the U.S. Attorney General's office has demanded that Google and Applebaum's ISP, Sonic.Net, turn over his email. Technically, the feds' order demands to know who Applebaum has been corresponding with, not what he's been saying -- the email equivalent of a pen register, not a wiretap -- as well as the IP addresses he's used.

But because the requests were made under a law so ancient it has age spots -- the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 -- the government can request this information directly from service providers without the need for a search warrant or informing the people being investigated.

Presumably, the feds want to know who's been leaking to Applebaum. But with Bradley Manning already pretty much confessing to leaking the 250,000 diplomatic cables during his endless chats with hacker/journo Adrian Lamo, it's unclear why they need this.

Google and Sonic fought the orders in court but lost. The one point Sonic managed to win, however, was the release of Applebaum's name; at least he knows he's a target, despite the fact he's not been accused of doing anything wrong. And now, so do we.

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