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Feds told they need warrants for webmail

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A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court's ruling against warrantless seizures of email. Law enforcement agents need to obtain a warrant before looking at a user's email even if it is stored online, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled on Wednesday.

For 20 years, long before the introduction of knee-jerk law enforcement powers ushered in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Stored Communications Act (SCA) has been used by government agents to carry out secret searches and seizures of stored email, without requiring a warrant. A case brought by Steven Warshak challenged this practice.

In an important ruling, a district court said in July 2006 that the SCA violates the Fourth Amendment by allowing secret, warrantless searches of email stored with a third party. The government appealed arguing, in part, that the Fourth Amendment doesn't protect emails at all when they are stored with an ISP or a webmail provider such as Hotmail or Gmail.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, upholding the lower court's decision and affirming that users have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" about content in emails stored on a remote host.

It's unlikely that the US government will let matters rest there and further appeals are likely.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supported Warshak in the case, has published a number of papers giving more background on the case here. ®

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