DOJ: We don't need warrants for e-mail, Facebook chats

DOJ: We don't need warrants for e-mail, Facebook chats

An FBI investigation manual updated last year, obtained by the ACLU, says it's possible to warrantlessly obtain Americans' e-mail "without running afoul" of the Fourth Amendment.


Declan McCullagh

May 8, 2013 7:00 AM PDT Follow @declanm
Attorney General Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder
(Credit: Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI believe they don't need a search warrant to review Americans' e-mails, Facebook chats, Twitter direct messages, and other private files, internal documents reveal.

Government documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union and provided to CNET show a split over electronic privacy rights within the Obama administration, with Justice Department prosecutors and investigators privately insisting they're not legally required to obtain search warrants for e-mail. The IRS, on the other hand, publicly said last month that it would abandon a controversial policy that claimed it could get warrantless access to e-mail correspondence.

The U.S. attorney for Manhattan circulated internal instructions, for instance, saying a subpoena -- a piece of paper signed by a prosecutor, not a judge -- is sufficient to obtain nearly "all records from an ISP." And the U.S. attorney in Houston recently obtained the "contents of stored communications" from an unnamed Internet service provider without securing a warrant signed by a judge first.

"We really can't have this patchwork system anymore, where agencies get to decide on an ad hoc basis how privacy-protective they're going to be," says Nathan Wessler, an ACLU staff attorney specializing in privacy topics who obtained the documents through open government laws. "Courts and Congress need to step in."

The Justice Department's disinclination to seek warrants for private files stored on the servers of companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft continued even after a federal appeals court in 2010 ruled that warrantless access to e-mail violates the Fourth Amendment. A previously unreleased version of an FBI manual (PDF), last updated two-and-a-half years after the appellate ruling, says field agents "may subpoena" e-mail records from companies "without running afoul of" the Fourth Amendment.

The department did not respond to queries from CNET Tuesday. The FBI said in a statement that:

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