The downfall of CIA Director David Petraeus demonstrates how easy it is for federal law enforcement agents to examine emails and computer records if they believe a crime was committed. With subpoenas and warrants, the FBI and other investigating agencies routinely gain access to electronic inboxes and information about email accounts offered by Google, Yahoo and other Internet providers.
"The government can't just wander through your emails just because they'd like to know what you're thinking or doing," said Stewart Baker, a former assistant secretary at the Homeland Security Department who's now in private law practice. "But if the government is investigating a crime, it has a lot of authority to review people's emails."
Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, federal authorities need only a subpoena approved by a federal prosecutor — not a judge — to obtain electronic messages that are six months old or older. To get more recent communications, a warrant from a judge is required. This is a higher standard that requires proof of probable cause that a crime is being committed.
I have plenty of old email in my box that Sammy wouldn't find particularly interesting, but it's a word to the wise for the rest of you miscreants. And yet another reminder why we need to pay attention to the Justice Department.