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Why nothing is private: How the FBI can read your emails

Posting in Government

How can the FBI access a citizen's personal email account, and should we care?

These are concerns brought to light due to the investigation surrounding General David Petraeus, who allegedly had an extra-marital affair with Paula Broadwell, discovered after "inappropriate" emails were sent potentially by General John Allen, who denies any wrongdoing.

The investigation has proven just how easy it is for federal law enforcement to examine electronic communication and computer records if they believe a crime has been committed. As ABC News reports, the law which allows agencies to do such things is the Stored Communications Act (SCA), part of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

The SCA allows investigating bodies to access email accounts provided by standard services including Google and Yahoo. Once granted a warrant, any "government entity" can force a provider to disclose "contents of a wire or electronic communication" that has been in storage for up to 180 days, providing there is reasonable cause to believe a crime is being committed.

If electronic communication has been stored for over 180 days, a government agency must be granted a subpoena or court order.

"The government can't just wander through your emails just because they'd like to know what you're thinking or doing," Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security told the AP. "But if the government is investigating a crime, it has a lot of authority to review people's emails."

As it is now cheap to store electronic communication indefinitely due to cloud computing and the expansion of the Internet, some groups have been lobbying Congress for a change in such regulations. Messages are rarely truly deleted, and all it currently takes is a subpoena to dig up any message, no matter how long ago it was sent -- potentially a concern for privacy groups and rights activists.

"If there is a lesson here, it is about how incredibly difficult it is for anyone to do anything anonymously," Catherine Crump of the ACLU said.

"You leave an electronic trail wherever you go. Given this new reality in which we all create permanent records of everything we say and do, it is all the more important that law enforcement be subjected to clear rules about what they can or cannot do."

Image credit: Flickr

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— By on November 12, 2012, 9:56 PM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure