IRS Tells Congress That It Obtains Warrants Before Searching Emails

IT Management

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Late last week, the ACLU reported that the IRS probably obtained emails without a warrant. The group came to this conclusion after an agency handbook from 2009 said that Internet users "do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy." Now the agency is firing back saying it does no such thing.

The Hill reports that IRS Commissioner Steven Miller was present at a congressional hearing today where Sen. Chuck Grassley grilled the commissioner on the agency's email policy. Miller said that his agency obtains a search warrant before requesting emails, and even went further by saying that the agency never requests emails during civil investigations.

Miller also said that his agency follows the ruling set in United States v. Warshak, a Sixth Circuit Court decision that said the government must obtain a warrant before requesting emails from a service provider. The decision is only binding in the Sixth Circuit, but the IRS says it applies the ruling to operations nationwide.

What's interesting here is that the documents obtained by the ACLU suggests the IRS does the exact opposite. The documents never explicitly state that the IRS snooped through emails without a warrant, but everything points to this conclusion. Even when taking United States v. Warshak into account, the IRS reportedly said that it only needed to worry about a warrant in the Sixth Circuit.

Of course, senators brought up this disparity during the hearing. Miller said that his agency will work on clarifying its procedures, but still insisted that it obtained a warrant when snooping through emails. Unfortunately, Miller said that he couldn't say the same thing for other online communications like Facebook messages, but that's only because he didn't know the agency's specific warrant requirements for these new types of communications.

Today's hearing precedes the Senate Judiciary Committee's planned markup of the decades old ECPA law on Thursday. Currently, the ECPA lets law enforcement obtain emails with only a subpoena if the email in question is over 180 days old. The bill going before Committee on Thursday will require law enforcement to obtain a warrant when obtaining emails and other online communications regardless of its age.