Just in time for Tax Day 2013 (better known in the Cringely household as Tequila for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner Day) comes news that the IRS is even a bigger snoop than you suspected -- or at least it might be.
Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney for the ACLU, penned a blog post earlier today that has twisted the blogosphere's collective knickers into tiny little knots. In it he writes of a Freedom of Information Act request the ACLU sent to the IRS last year and the 247 pages of bureaucratese it received in response.
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The ACLU wanted to know if the IRS requires a warrant before it reads the emails, texts, and other private communications of someone who is, presumably, undergoing an audit (better known in the Cringely household as an anesthetics-free colonoscopy). The answer? No, perhaps, we think, but we're not 100 percent sure. Per Wessler:
So does the IRS always get a warrant? Unfortunately, while the documents we have obtained do not answer this question point blank, they suggest otherwise. This question is too important for the IRS not to be completely forthright with the American public. The IRS should tell the public whether it always gets a warrant to access email and other private communications in the course of criminal investigations. And if the agency does not get a warrant, it should change its policy to always require one.
Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story
Well, that certainly clears things up, don't it? But that was all it took to get the blogger engines revving. Take SlashGear's Brian Sin, who penned a quickie summary post titled "IRS believes it can read your emails, chats, and more without a warrant." Or this quasi-double negative headline from TechCrunch's Gregory Ferenstein: "IRS doesn't deny snooping emails without a warrant." Then there's the Daily Finance's Matt Brownell, who apparently feels quite certain that "Yes, the IRS can read your emails if it wants" -- no lawyerly shades of gray for old Matt B.
Kudos to our friends over at PC Mag, who at least get the story right with "ACLU questions whether IRS is reading email without a warrant." It's a reasonable question, because of two things: One is rather shoddy legal advice provided in a 2009 IRS handbook that pretty much says all email is fair game to IRS investigators.
The Fourth Amendment does not protect communications held in electronic storage, such as email messages stored on a server, because Internet users do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications.