US government must get court orders on email

The US Appeals Court has ruled that ISPs don’t have to turn over emails to government spooks just because they ask.

The 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that residents in the former British colony of Virginia had Fourth Amendment protection and that the government must obtain a court warrant to require internet service providers to turn over stored e-mail.

While it seems obvious to the great unwashed, or people who live in democratic countries, apparently the it was not to the US government.

Steven Warshak, founder of an Ohio herbal-supplement company was arrested for fraud.

However, the maker of herbal male-enhancement tablets claimed the evidence did not stand up in court because much of it was obtained from thousands of his emails that the coppers got from his ISP without a warrant. Without looking at his emails the Feds did not have any hard evidence.

According to Wired, Warshak appealed his 25 year conviction on those and other grounds, and the circuit court tossed his sentence out.

At the time that Warshak was investigated there was a 1986 law that allowed the government to obtain a suspect’s email from an internet service provider or webmail provider without a probable-cause warrant, once it’s been stored for 180 days or more.

The appeals court said this part of the Stored Communications Act is unconstitutional.

The decision means that the government may not compel a commercial ISP to turn over the contents of a subscriber’s emails without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause. The decision covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

The law was written when email generally wasn’t stored on servers at all, but instead passed through them briefly on their way to the recipient’s inbox.

These days email can is being stored on servers perminently. A consortium of businesses, including Google and Microsoft, recently asked Congress to update the law and require probable cause to obtain any email.