Judge Approves Warrant For Gmail User’s Entire Inbox

Google Gmail NSA Surveillance Government Judge
A New York Judge ruled last Friday that Google Inc. employees would not be able to determine which emails in a Gmail user's inbox were pertinent to a case. Instead, he approved a warrant that gave investigators access to the user's entire inbox. Reuters

A federal judge in New York authorized a warrant requiring Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL) to give prosecutors access to a user’s inbox. U.S. Magistrate Gabriel Gorenstein permitted investigators to request the total contents of a Gmail account.

The unnamed defendant is the target of a criminal investigation of a money-laundering scheme in a case that raises questions about government intrusion into citizens’ digital lives. Previous rulings have disallowed sweeping warrants that include all of a user’s emails, saying they constituted an invasion of privacy, Gorenstein wrote in his decision last Friday, while others allowed access to the entirety of a computer user’s hard drive.

“We perceive no constitutionally significant difference between the searches of hard drives just discussed and searches of email accounts,” he said, adding in most cases, an email account’s data was less “expansive” than the information contained on a hard drive.

The law grants investigators the right to review large swaths of documents to decide which ones were covered by a warrant. Google did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Google employees did not have the expertise to decide which emails to turn over to investigators, Gorenstein said. A District of Columbia court previously ruled the government had the option of getting an inbox scanned by the host itself -- Google, in this case -- which would then determine which emails would be related to a case. But Gorenstein said investigators involved in the investigation would be better able to determine whether emails were pertinent.  

The U.S. government’s ability to digitally seize the personal information of citizens has been frequently disputed, following the revelations stemming from the National Security Agency’s data collection programs. In 2013, a judge in Kansas denied warrants for emails and records at various online companies in a case involving stolen computers because, he said, they were overly broad. In March, a District of Columbia judge rejected a warrant for the personal email account of a defense contractor targeted in a corruption investigation. Judge John Facciola said the Justice Department’s request was “repugnant” to the Bill of Rights.

In April, a New York judge ruled prosecutors could force Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ:MSFT) to hand over customer emails in overseas data centers. Microsoft has appealed the decision, with Verizon, AT&T, Cisco, Apple and the Electronic Frontier Foundation all filing briefs in its support. A hearing for the appeal is scheduled for July 31.

Join the Discussion