January 24, 2013
Despite federal law that states authorities do not need warrants for e-mails stored for longer than 180 days, Google demands probable cause warrants when asked for user data from Gmail or other cloud-based services. “Google requires an ECPA search warrant for contents of Gmail and other services based on the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which prevents unreasonable search and seizure,” Google said in a statement.
The news came to light when Google announced that more than two-thirds of user data the company forwards to government agencies is done so without a probable-cause warrant.
“The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, the relevant law in question, was adopted at a time when e-mail wasn’t stored on servers for a long time, but instead was held there briefly on its way to the recipient’s inbox,” notes Wired. “In the 1980s, e-mail more than 6 months old was assumed abandoned, and therefore ripe for the taking without a probable-cause warrant.”
Customer data released without a warrant includes names listed in new Gmail accounts, IP addresses from where Gmail accounts were created, and time and location information regarding account log-ins/outs.
“What’s more, Google hands over without warrants the IP address associated with a particular e-mail sent from a Gmail account or used to change the account password, in addition to the non-content portion of e-mail headers such as the ‘from,’ ‘to’ and ‘date’ fields,” explains the article.
Two federal appellate decisions from 2010 had contradictory rulings on the matter. The government may not want to challenge Google on the matter and risk a decision from a higher court.
“The data Google is coughing up to the authorities includes e-mail and text-messaging communications, cloud-stored documents and, among other things, browsing activity, and even IP addresses used to create an account,” reports Wired. “In all, agencies across the United States demanded 8,438 times that Google fork over data on some 14,791 accounts for the six-month period ending December 2012. Probable-cause search warrants were issued in 1,896 of the cases.”