IRS email snooping an affront to privacy

The acting head of the Internal Revenue Service on Tuesday told a Senate Finance Committee in Washington that his agency will no longer attempt to access the private emails of American citizens without a search warrant.

Big deal? Absolutely. In an age in which Americans can send sensitive information, instantly, to recipients around the globe, it’s heartening to know that the Fourth Amendment — our constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure — cannot be parsed to allow law enforcement agencies greater reach in the murky legal waters of the digital realm.

A story in Monday’s paper revealed the IRS runs every tax return through a confidential computer program to flag potential tax cheats.

When the agency deems a taxpayer worthy of investigation, is it too much to ask for the IRS to obtain a warrant before it loots a citizen’s email account for evidence of tax evasion?

After the IRS practice came to light through a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., was the only senator to raise the issue “to flag it and say this is a huge problem,” said Mike Saccone, Udall’s communications director.

Udall called out the agency’s practice as “an affront not only to our system of checks and balances, but also to our fundamental right to privacy.”

Most people with a basic knowledge of the Bill of Rights would be surprised to learn that the practice was ever authorized in the first place, especially after a federal appeals court ruled in a 2010 case that Americans have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their email.

But internal IRS documents revealed last week show the agency instructing investigators to obtain everything in email accounts — except for unopened email or voice mail stored with a provider for 180 days or fewer — without a warrant.

In the wake of Tuesday’s hearing, Udall called for Congress to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. “No government agency should be able to sidestep the Constitution and search Americans’ email or digital communications without a warrant,” he said in a statement.

The fact that the IRS was able to conduct warrantless searches speaks to an urgent need to overhaul the outdated act, written long before anyone could envision cloud-based servers storing massive amounts of information.

Let’s get a clear definition of what the Fourth Amendment protects and what it doesn’t. While the IRS backed off accessing emails, it still doesn’t have a formal policy for private communications exchanged through Facebook and Twitter.

Congress needs to rewrite the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to make it clear that law enforcement needs warrants to access private communications.

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