Fear of hackers reading private emails in cloud-based systems like Microsoft Outlook, Gmail or Yahoo has recently sent regular people and public officials scrambling to delete entire accounts full of messages dating back years. What we don’t expect is our own government to hack our email – but it’s happening. Federal court cases going on right now are revealing that federal officials can read all your email without your knowledge.
As a scholar and lawyer who started researching and writing about the history and meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution more than 30 years ago, I immediately saw how the FBI versus Apple controversy earlier this year was bringing the founders’ fight for liberty into the 21st century. My study of that legal battle caused me to dig into the federal government’s actual practices for getting email from cloud accounts and cellphones, causing me to worry that our basic liberties are threatened.
A new type of government search
The federal government is getting access to the contents of entire email accounts by using an ancient procedure – the search warrant – with a new, sinister twist: secret court proceedings.
The earliest search warrants had a very limited purpose – authorizing entry to private premises to find and recover stolen goods. During the era of the American Revolution, British authorities abused this power to conduct dragnet searches of colonial homes and to seize people’s private papers looking for evidence of political resistance.
To prevent the new federal government from engaging in that sort of tyranny, special controls over search warrants were written into the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. But these constitutional provisions are failing to protect our personal documents if they are stored in the cloud or on our smartphones.
Fortunately, the government’s efforts are finally being made public, thanks to legal battles taken up by Apple, Microsoft and other major companies. But the feds are fighting back, using even more subversive legal tactics.