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Is US government reading email without a warrant? It doesn't want to talk about it

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07/06/2012 08:19 AM
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Is US government reading email without a warrant? It doesn't want to talk about it
Does the U.S. government read your email? It's a simple question, but apparently there's no simple answer. And the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service are reluctant to say anything on the topic.

In March, the American Civil Liberties Union caused a nationwide stir when the advocacy group released the results of its year-long investigation into law enforcement use of cellphone tracking data. After issuing hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests, the ACLU learned that many local police departments around the country routinely pay mobile phone network operators a small fee to get detailed records of historic cell phone location information. The data tell cops not just where a suspect might have been at a given moment, but also create the possibility of retracing someone's whereabouts for months. In most cases, law enforcement obtains the data without applying for a search warrant; generally, subpoenas are issued instead, which require law enforcement to meet a lower legal standard.

The Justice Department and the Obama administration had a chance to settle the issue in April 2011, during a Senate hearing on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Instead, officials with both the Commerce and Justice departments failed to provide any clarity. Instead, a Justice Department official argued against extending Fourth Amendment protections -- specifically strict warrant requirements -- to email, saying that doing so would hinder investigations.

The distinction is also important as the U.S. government plunges headlong into new high-tech surveillance technologies, such as its massive new million-square-foot "Utah Data Center," under construction in rural Utah for the National Security Agency. The facility is designed to help protect cyberspace, NSA official have said. But Wired Magazine published a cover story earlier this year arguing that the facility will be capable of monitoring every email and text message sent around the world -- including messages to and from U.S. citizens. It is scheduled to come online in 2013.

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