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Warrantless Email Requests
By: Jessica Cherok
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Holy crap! Did you guys know how many government requests for data Google receives in a year? No, of course you didn’t, because that information wasn’t public. Until now.

According to Google, federal, state, and local government agencies made a record 13,753 requests for emails and other information from Google for 2012. That’s up from the 23,300 made in 2011. Most concerning is that more than half of the requests came without warrants.

Google has more than 425 active Gmail users in addition to its other services like Google Voice, Blogger, etc. Google, like many others, stores its records on cloud servers. Cloud-based storage is great for us, the user, but it’s the cloud that allows the government to access our information without a warrant.

No, really — it’s true. The feds can’t come into your home and look on your laptop without a warrant, but they can request that same information from Google’s cloud servers without ever needing to obtain one. Essentially the information can be accessed sans warrant.

We have the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to thank. According to ECPA, opened email when stored in the cloud can be handed over, whereas data stored locally (on the computer’s hard drive) can only be accessed after obtaining a warrant.

Making the whole situation a little more frustrating is that Google may not always let you know when there’s been a request — warrant or not. While Google maintains it notifies users when legally required, there are times they are prohibited by law or court order.

Pushes for updates to ECPA, as well as other similar legislation, have become more commonplace in recent years, but for now Google — and others -— will have to comply with warrantless requests, as appropriate.

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About the Author
Jessica Cherok is an advocate for online privacy, campaigning for ethical data practices and the protection of personal privacy.
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