IRS Investigators See No Need For A Warrant To Snoop On Emails

by Mike Masnick
Apr. 12, 2013

The ACLU filed a freedom of information act (FOIA) request last year, asking for details about whether not IRS investigators get warrants before reading people's private communications. After finally getting 247 pages of records (which don't fully answer the questions asked), the ACLU has noted that the documents suggest that the IRS likely read private emails regularly without obtaining a warrant. In their blog post, they note that in the US v. Warshak case, the 6th Circuit made it clear that the government must get a warrant to turn over emails, and it seems clear that the IRS had to change its policy because of that.
The documents the ACLU obtained make clear that, before Warshak, it was the policy of the IRS to read people’s email without getting a warrant. Not only that, but the IRS believed that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to email at all. A 2009 “Search Warrant Handbook” from the IRS Criminal Tax Division’s Office of Chief Counsel baldly asserts that “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.” Again in 2010, a presentation by the IRS Office of Chief Counsel asserts that the “4th Amendment Does Not Protect Emails Stored on Server” and there is “No Privacy Expectation” in those emails.

Other older documents corroborate that the IRS did not get warrants across the board. For example, the 2009 edition of the Internal Revenue Manual (the official compilation of IRS policies and procedures) explains that “the government may obtain the contents of electronic communication that has been in storage for more than 180 days” without a warrant.
Of course, the IRS is not alone in this. That's the same way other government agencies have treated email thanks to the outdated nature of ECPA, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a law written nearly 30 years ago, which assumed that any content left on a server for over 180 days was "abandoned," because the idea of online messaging systems was foreign to folks in Congress at the time.

The bigger question, though, is whether or not the IRS paid attention to the ruling in Warshak and started getting warrants. As the ACLU notes, while not entirely clear, the answer is likely "no."
Then came Warshak, decided on December 14, 2010. The key question our FOIA request seeks to answer is whether the IRS’s policy changed after Warshak, which should have put the agency on notice that the Fourth Amendment does in fact protect the contents of emails. The first indication of the IRS’s position, from an email exchange in mid-January 2011, does not bode well. In an email titled “US v. Warshak,” an employee of the IRS Criminal Investigation unit asks two lawyers in the IRS Criminal Tax Division whether Warshak will have any effect on the IRS’s work. A Special Counsel in the Criminal Tax Division replies: “I have not heard anything related to this opinion. We have always taken the position that a warrant is necessary when retrieving e-mails that are less than 180 days old.” But that’s just the ECPA standard. The real question is whether the IRS is obtaining warrants for emails more than 180 days old. Shortly after Warshak, apparently it still was not

The IRS had an opportunity to officially reconsider its position when it issued edits to the Internal Revenue Manual in March 2011. But its policy stayed the same: the Manual explained that under ECPA, “Investigators can obtain everything in an account except for unopened e-mail or voice mail stored with a provider for 180 days or less using a [relevant-and-material-standard] court order” instead of a warrant. Again, no suggestion that the Fourth Amendment might require more.
As the ACLU notes, the IRS owes the American public a clear explanation of its view on warrants... and it should put in place a clear warrant requirement before snooping through emails.

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