IRS: No Search Warrant Needed to Read Taxpayers' E-mail

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
04/12/2013
       
IRS: No Search Warrant Needed to Read Taxpayers' E-mail

In a handbook obtained by the ACLU, the IRS claims that its agents do not need a search warrant before snooping through taxpayers' e-mail.

The federal government’s surveillance bandwagon is getting crowded. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the latest to jump on, claiming that its agents do not need a warrant to read “taxpayers'” e-mails.

According to documents obtained from the IRS as a result of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the tax-collecting behemoth believes that Americans have “generally no privacy” when it comes to the information included in any electronic communication from e-mail to Facebook chats and direct messages exchanged on Twitter. 

These forms of communication are not protected by that expectation of privacy granted to other aspects of their personal lives; thus IRS agents need not petition a judge for the right to snoop into the content of these communications.

This unbelievable, though not now unique, interpretation of the right of Americans “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, was set out in an IRS Search Warrant Handbook now in the possession of the ACLU.

Specifically, the guidelines provided to agents in the handbook state that “emails and other transmissions generally lose their reasonable expectation of privacy and thus their Fourth Amendment protection once they have been sent from an individual's computer.”

Surrendered as a result of an ACLU Freedom of Information Act request, the IRS handbook was drafted by the office of chief counsel for the Criminal Tax Division.

In a statement posted on an ACLU blog, attorney Nathan Wessler refuted the IRS’ opinion of the Fourth Amendment’s protections:

Let's hope you never end up on the wrong end of an IRS criminal tax investigation. But if you do, you should be able to trust that the IRS will obey the Fourth Amendment when it seeks the contents of your private emails. Until now, that hasn't been the case. The IRS should let the American public know whether it obtains warrants across the board when accessing people's email. And even more important, the IRS should formally amend its policies to require its agents to obtain warrants when seeking the contents of emails, without regard to their age.

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