IRS Says It Can Read Your Email and Facebook Messages

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An Internal Revenue Service handbook says you have no expectation to privacy with online communications. Many find that idea troubling.

A 2009 IRS handbook says online transmissions — including email, Facebook chats and Twitter private messages — “generally lose their reasonable expectation of privacy and thus their Fourth Amendment protection once they have been sent from an individual’s computer.”

Got that? Leave the text as an unsent draft and it’s private. Use email or social media to actually communicate, and the IRS thinks it’s fair game. If it’s electronic and stored on a server, your constitutional rights don’t apply.

The handbook was recently obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a public records request made last year. The stance the IRS takes is at odds with a 2010 appeals court decision that said a probable cause warrant is needed to force an email provider to turn over private records.

The ACLU is worried that Uncle Sam is adhering to that decision only in the four states (Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee) where that particular court reigns. It points out opportunities where the IRS has had a chance to amend or clarify its position, but hasn’t.

The IRS’ justification comes from a law passed in 1986 — long before electronic communication was a concern to the average American. It’s called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and allows law enforcement to acquire communications more than 180 days old without a warrant. Tech companies ranging from Apple to Twitter, as well as advocacy groups of all political stripes, have asked for the law to be updated, CNET says.

Stacy Johnson

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