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Internal Revenue Service denies searching email without a warrant

Internal Revenue Service denies searching email without a warrant

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Internal IRS employee manuals and memos released by the American Civil Liberties Union last week suggested that the Internal Revenue Service may be reading private email without a warrant, but the tax agency today denied the claims in a Congressional hearing. As The Hill reports, IRS Commissioner Steven Miller told senators that the agency "is not taking that position," and that the IRS obtains a search warrant before requesting emails from an ISP in criminal investigations.

The ACLU's Freedom of Information Act request to the IRS uncovered a 2009 handbook in which the IRS stated that the Fourth Amendment does not protect emails — a symptom, critics claim, of the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). While the ECPA has neared reform in recent months, the current guidelines were established in 1986, allowing law enforcement officials to search emails without a warrant provided they've been stored in the cloud for at least 180 days and are declared "relevant" to an investigation.

Privacy advocates say that the law violates the superior protections provided by the Fourth Amendment, and a 2010 court ruling (US v. Warshak) supports that view; the court ruled that police had violated a citizen's constitutional rights by reading his email without a warrant. But an October 2011 IRS memo released by the ACLU noted that the Warshak ruling only applied in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee. Despite that internal guidance, the IRS chief told Congress that the agency follows the Warshak court ruling across the country, The Hill reports. Miller also said that the IRS plans to clarify its procedures, but is currently unsure whether the agency's policy to obtain warrants applies to sites like Facebook and Twitter.