A federal judge in New York has ordered a search warrant that allows law enforcement to search through a Gmail account as part of a criminal investigation.
The court decision is likely to spark a new chapter of debate in the saga of privacy rights and data collection of individual Internet users. The judge allowed the search of email from users under investigation of crimes that include money laundering.
Other judges reportedly hold a different point of view than Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein regarding the issue. Up until this point, warrants haven't been issued for a search through private citizens' email to collect data in a criminal investigation.
Some magistrate judges and a U.S. Supreme Court have rejected such requests in the past. Gorenstein noted in his decision that his judicial action was at odds with a Kansas court as well as a District of Columbia court, which declared access to an entire email account was too broad a use of search and seizure as the government coudn't establish probable cause to search all private emails. The Kansas court ruled similarly, stating not all of the electronic correspondence in an email account can be considered relevant to any specific crimes being investigated.
The judge said the court saw no difference between searching the emails for specific messages relevant to an investigation than it did to searching the contents of a hard drive. The judge argued that in many cases the data contained in an email account is less expansive than the data in a hard drive.
A court in D.C. alternatively ruled Google could provide law enforcement with certain relevant information from a user's account, but before they could proceed with a search, Google's staff would need to first be briefed on the case.
The judge, from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, countered that argument, stating a seasoned law enforcement agent with eyes familiar with specific types of language would be able to spot information that employees of the email host could not. "Seemingly innocuous or commonplace messages could be the direct evidence of illegality the Government had hoped to uncover. While an agent steeped in the investigation could recognize the significance of particular language in emails, an employee of the email host would be incapable of doing so," the opinion states.
Microsoft was also ordered to provide access to emails from an Ireland data center, but the company appealed. It received support in the case from Verizon, Apple and AT&T.
Internet privacy and law enforcement efforts continue to cause controversy, particularly after the Edward Snowden NSA leaks.