Federal Judge Michael Mosman has ruled that the government can read your e-mails stored with a third-party provider like GMail, without notifying you that a search warrant has been executed (PDF) against your account. (Actually, the judge ruled that there is no "notice" requirement triggered at all, so that in theory, neither GMail nor the subscriber would have to be notified — but that seems only of theoretical interest, since in practice GMail would have to cooperate in order to execute the warrant, unless the government is planning to have ninjas sneak into their server farm at night. The substantive impact of the ruling is that e-mails can be read without notifying the subscriber.)
Now, as I said when writing about the possibility of undetectable encryption being installed on people's computers, at the risk of incurring the wrath of civil libertarian allies, I am not 100% in favor of limiting governmental power in cases like these. Restraints on governmental power have their pros and cons, and many people who are targeted by government investigations really are evil. There may be cases where the government can only prevent harm from being done, by gaining access to someone's e-mail account, and by preventing the subscriber from finding out that their e-mails are being read. However, all of these arguments are also true when applied to governmental seizure of property from someone's home — and yet we still have Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches of your house. So should they, and do they, legally apply to e-mail? And under the "third party doctrine," should the government have to notify the subscriber of the search, or only the ISP?
Law Professor Orin Kerr of George Washington University Law School has written an article [click on the link and then press the download button to download a draft] arguing that the Fourth Amendment does apply to e-mail. But he has also written another article arguing in favor of the third-party doctrine — essentially, that when the government seizes property that is in the possession of a third party, it only has to notify the third party, not the property owner. To the extent that this is relevant to the GMail case, the argument would appear to support Judge Mosman's ruling. However, Kerr's paper also acknowledges that the third party rule has been the subject of scorching criticism of other Fourth Amendment scholars, calling it "dead wrong" and "making a mockery of the Fourth Amendment."
It will probably be a long time before courts are issuing consistent rulings on the third-party rule as it applies to e-mail. In the meantime, though, one statement in Judge Mosman's ruling sticks out in particular:
"[T]he defendants voluntarily conveyed to the ISPs and exposed to the ISP's employees in the ordinary course of business the contents of their e-mails."
This was the basis for further reasoning that the defendants had less of an expectation of privacy in their e-mail contents, and hence that there was a strong case for allowing the government to read the e-mails without notice to the defendants. (In this he was drawing an analogy to a previous ruling in which a court held that a bank's customer has "no legitimate expectation of privacy" in his bank records because they were "voluntarily conveyed to the banks and exposed to their employees in the ordinary course of business.")
But as applied to ISPs, this is a statement of fact, not a statement of law, and as a statement of fact it's simply wrong. ISP employees, even the most highly placed ones, do not have access to customers' e-mails "in the ordinary course of business." And even in the non-ordinary course of business, in the case where e-mails have to be inspected to satisfy a subpoena requirement or to investigate an abuse report, only employees with the proper business justification can read the e-mails. (At the e-mail provider that I use, SpeakEasy, employees can only access accounts with the explicit permission of the customer, and only then by resetting the password or obtaining the password from the customer. When I worked in MSN accounts, most employees didn't have the security clearance to access customer accounts at all.)
Judge Mosman uses several more analogies in arguing that the third-party doctrine applies to e-mails (beginning on page 12 of the ruling), analogies between e-mail and real-world situations that most of us are familiar with, like leaving documents out in the open at someone else's house. Now, most of us don't have the expertise to comment on the legal technicalities. But in the game of analogies, we're all experts, insofar as we're qualified to comment on whether we feel that one thing is "like" another, or whether our "expectations of privacy" in the two areas are similar. And under the rules of that game, I would disagree with the judge's analogies for several reasons:
1. There is a difference between leaving property in someone else's possession because you don't care very much about keeping it private, and leaving property in someone else's possession because you have no choice. The judge cites precedents in which courts ruled, variously: (a) that when a suspect left documents at his mother's house and the police executed a warrant there, they only had to provide notice to the mother, not the suspect, even though the mother was not the owner of the documents; (b) that a defendant had no grounds to object to the search of another person's purse, when the search turned up drugs belonging to the defendant; and (c) that defendants 'could not make a Fourth Amendment claim regarding a search of someone else's car because they had no "legitimate expectation of privacy in the glove compartment or area under the seat of the car in which they were merely passengers."' But all of those cases involved property that the defendants chose to leave in the possession of someone else, rather than keeping on their person or in their own houses. In all of these cases, the person X who left the property in the possession of person Y, could not have expected that person Y would keep their eyes off of that property, or would shield it from the view of casual acquaintances who happened to see it there. So by allowing the notice only to be served on person Y, these three cases are just specific implementations of a general rule: "If person X leaves property with person Y, with no expectation that person Y would refrain from examining the property, then the notice of warrant only has to be served on person Y."
This rule does not generalize to GMail accounts. If I send and receive messages through a GMail account, I know that they're stored on Google's servers, but that's out of necessity in order for them to provide web-based e-mail that can be accessed from multiple locations. By allowing the e-mails to be stored on their servers, I haven't conveyed that I care any less about their private contents, because I didn't have a choice. Now, if I had printed out an e-mail from GMail and left it lying around at my Mom's house, or in a friend's glove compartment, then that could be interpreted to indicate that I had less interest in keeping that e-mail private, and it would be more analogous to the situations above. In fact if I had sent an e-mail to someone working at Google, I would understand that my expectation of privacy had been lowered significantly, and that the recipient might forward it to their friends or leave a printout on their desk, or that the police might request for him to show it to them without notifying me. Simply having an e-mail stored in a GMail account is not the same thing.
2. E-mails are not like bank records, because you have a greater expectation of privacy for e-mails, even from the institutions that hold them. It's true that bank transactions are more closely analogous to web-based e-mails, because they're both stored on company servers by the nature of the business, so this analogy isn't as badly flawed as the previous ones. But in addition to the fact mentioned above, that ISP employees do not have access to your e-mails "in the ordinary course of business" despite what Judge Mosman wrote, there is the "inside/outside" distinction that Orin Kerr describes in his paper on the Fourth Amendment and e-mail. Essentially, police don't need a warrant to observe what goes on outside your home — whatever is visible from a public street — but they would need a warrant to take their inspection inside. Kerr argues for extending this analogy to the "content/non-content" rule for Internet transactions, so that Fourth Amendment protection would apply to the contents of e-mails, but not necessarily to the "outside" information such as sender, recipient, and transmission time. (Actually that still seems like rather weak privacy protection, to say that the Fourth Amendment doesn't protect information about who we exchange e-mails with, but even this watered-down argument still implies stronger privacy protection for e-mail contents.) Bank transaction records would be more like "outside" information and less deserving of privacy protection, so the analogy doesn't hold.
3. By analogy to the expectation of privacy in people's homes, the expectation of privacy for the contents of e-mail is possibly greater. Judge Mosman writes, "The sanctity of the home is often cited as the central purpose for this notice requirement, but the requirement has not been explicitly limited to searches of homes," and quotes from another court decision: "[t]he mere thought of strangers walking through and visually examining the center of our privacy interest, our home, arouses our passion for freedom as does nothing else." Well, since he brought it up, if it's relevant to compare the "passion" that's "aroused" by the invasion of various spheres of privacy, if I had a choice I would rather have a stranger wander through my house and inspect everything except the computer, than allow them access to my browser history and all the e-mails I'd sent and received in the past year. (And that's not even taking into account the violations of other people's privacy that would be entailed by someone looking through all of my e-mails.) Applying the test of "What would you rather have people see?", most people who make more than casual use of e-mail, seem to care more about the privacy of their e-mail than about the privacy of what's visibly lying around in their house — if a good friend drops by unannounced, you can usually lead them through your house without worrying about what they'd see, but you probably wouldn't give the same person a complete record of all your e-mails in the past year. (Remember, according to the judge's quote, we're comparing "visually examining" your house vs. your e-mail, not actually physically taking anything.)
As I said, I'm not necessarily opposed to the government having the authority to obtain records of people's e-mails if they have an extremely good reason, without necessarily having to notify the subscriber that their e-mails had been read. But the justification should not rest on wrong-headed assumptions like the notion that ISP customers "expose to the ISP's employees in the ordinary course of business the contents of their e-mails." I wonder if even Judge Mosman thinks that's true. If he got a call from his bank offering to upgrade his account based on recent transaction activity, he'd probably just politely get them off the phone like the rest of us. But if he got a call from his ISP tomorrow, saying that his e-mails were starting to sound cranky and they were wondering if there was anything they could do to cheer him up, would he just thank them for their concern and leave it at that?