Yahoo wins email battle with US Government

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) has backed down in its dispute with Yahoo over access to emails without a warrant.

Yahoo wins email battle with US Government

Yahoo had challenged a court order for access to an unnamed user’s email on the grounds that no warrant was issued. The DoJ claimed that because the user had already read the email, it didn’t fall under the Stored Communications Act, which states the Government can request access to an email after it has been stored for 180 days.

While this is a great victory for that Yahoo subscriber, it’s disappointing to those of us who wanted a clear ruling on the legality and constitutionality of the Government’s overreaching demand

The request was dropped on Friday after Yahoo – supported by a coalition of rights groups and internet companies that included Google and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – refused access on the grounds that email privacy was protected by the Fourth Amendment. This is part of the US Bill of Rights and safeguards against “unreasonable searches and seizures” – specifically stating that a warrant based on “probable cause” is needed.

The Government’s withdrawal has suspended the debate over whether email privacy is protected by the US constitution, with rights groups still claiming the law needs verification.

“While this is a great victory for Yahoo subscribers, it’s disappointing to those of us who wanted a clear ruling on the legality and constitutionality of the Government’s overreaching demand,” Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney at the EFF, wrote on the group’s website.

“Such demands are apparently a routine law enforcement technique. If the Government withdraws its demand whenever an objection is raised by an email provider or a friend of the court like EFF, however, it robs the courts of the ability to issue opinions on whether the Government’s warrantless email surveillance practices are legal.”

The debate continues

This is not the first time access to email has been disputed in the US courts, as parties seek further clarification over the Fourth Amendment for the digital age. Since the wording of the amendment focuses on physical space and possessions – “persons, houses, papers, and effects” – email remains a grey area. However, the EFF says that this shouldn’t rule out emails from protection.

“Americans trust internet service providers and other technology companies to collect and store large amounts of personal information… and it’s time that Congress clarified and strengthened the law to better protect that data,” said EFF civil liberties director Jennifer Granick. “Just as your postal letters and packages are private even though the carrier could open them, so your email and other information is protected even if it is stored on a third party’s server.”

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