Should the Need for Warrants Be Extended to Personal Emails?

Should The Need for Warrants Be Extended to Personal Emails?

Whether or not governments should be allowed to sift through particular personal assets has been a subject of debate for longer than any of us have ever lived. Much more in the 21st century, the definition of “personal assets” has been extended to a variety of things such as emails, phones, SMS messages, private Facebook posts, and the odd selfie.

On 27 April 2016, members from both parties in the U.S. Congress passed The Email Privacy Act which would effectively force the government to seek a warrant before asking a tech company to hand over personal emails.

Similar provisions exist in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, mentioning the “right to be left alone” and a “respect for private life.” “Why is email different from an individual’s papers within their home?” you may ask. But perhaps the question should be, “What made it difficult for the U.S. government to treat personal assets like emails the same as a safe in a house’s attic?”

The Dilemma

(c) 2006 Bonnie Jacobs

We seem to apply different rules to different situations on personal assets (such as public pictures that people regret posting still being considered private property depending on who you ask), which complicates what we define as private. Just how private is a picture of your dog that you set as your avatar on a forum? And, more importantly, how private are your emails when they aren’t stored in your own computer but on a server several miles away from your home?

These questions led to an ethical dilemma. Although the spirit of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is very clear on leaving people’s things alone, there are several ways to demonstrate that it leaves a bit of leeway when it comes to things like people’s vehicles. In many cases, the police can search a car without a warrant, especially if it is impounded.

The one place where you can be sure that the fourth amendment applies (for the most part) is within a person’s house. Unless you live inside your email provider’s data center, it’s very likely that your email is separated from you by hundreds or even thousands of miles. This can provide all sorts of arguments for the legal definition of personal effects to be stretched a bit.

What U.S. Law Says About Email


Before The Email Privacy Act, according to U.S. law, every email that is older than 180 days and is stored online can be accessed by authorities. Newer messages required warrants.

The reason why this is relevant, even if you live outside of the United States, is because companies based there have something called an MLAT (mutual legal assistance treaty). Through this treaty, foreign investigations into holders of email accounts that are hosted in the United States can be carried out with the assistance of U.S. authorities. Once a case is handed over to a U.S. attorney, the procedure must follow the country’s laws in the process of acquiring evidence and information. This could possibly mean that a warrant would be required even if the person holding the email is not a U.S. citizen, since the company hosting it is based there.

Do you think your government should be required to submit a warrant before accessing your personal emails? Tell us in a comment!

Miguel Leiva-Gomez Miguel Leiva-Gomez

Miguel has been a business growth and technology expert for more than a decade and has written software for even longer. From his little castle in Romania, he presents cold and analytical perspectives to things that affect the tech world.


  1. “Do you think your government should be required to submit a warrant before accessing your personal emails?”
    Definitely yes!

    Knowing how Congress phrases the legislation that it passes, I suspect the The Email Privacy Act is so vague, contains so many loop holes and exceptions that it is not worth the paper it is written on. The Act is intended to give the general public a feeling of security from governmental access while at the same time not putting up obstacles to such access.

  2. Do you really think this law means anything? Look at the recent fight between the FBI and Apple. If the government wants something, even in your home, they will just simple enact the “writs all.” This is all they need. Until this revoked, there is no privacy anywhere in the United States.

  3. I’m offended that someone even considered asking the question. All persons have a right to be secure in their information, and that includes email.

  4. I stand on the middle ground on this issue, only because I’ve lost friends from 9-11 that had there been a way to monitor and intercept the communications of the terrorists that plotted together that day? the towers might still be standing and my friends alive. So I feel the government SHOULD be allowed access to emails and anything else……but ONLY if its in the realm of helping to prevent an act of terrorism on U.S. soil…or to save the life of someone, whether male, female, boy, girl, etc. Other than that I don’t think it would be right for them to access things without a warrant. The whole debate as to whether or not a picture you posted 5 years ago belongs to you or not should be thrown out. There’d BE no picture of you to store had it not ORIGINATED with YOU!…so just like with the copyrights of authors and musical artists, it should be considered YOUR property. Whether its stored on Google’s servers…..Yahoo’s….MSN’s….Facebook….Twitter….etc…’d eliminate the necessity of having to file a copyright form or patent or anything else simply because you or someone in your circle of family or friends is IN the picture. Just my thoughts on this whole “electronic presence” debate.

  5. While I sympathize with you, it was necessary to provoke a bit of thought on this discussion. Frankly, I attempted to put aside my personal views on this in order to write as coherent a piece as possible. But yes, the thought of allowing government authorities to have easy access to personal effects should be a controversial topic, especially in countries whose constitutions provide for restrictions on such access. The language in which the U.S. Constitution was drafted came with the presumption that the citizens’ rights are inherent, not handed to them. This essentially means that the Bill of Rights is a declaration of restraint. Not something that affords permission to U.S. Citizens, but protects them from infringement of that which is entitled to them as a matter of fact.

  6. I am sorry for your loss. However, I do not agree with you. There should be no warrantless or unwarranted eavesdropping on telephone conversations. If the government can prove to a judge’s satisfaction that an individual poses a threat, I’m sure that there would be no problem about obtaining a warrant. If the government cannot prove an imminent threat, then no warrant should be issued because all the government is doing is fishing for possible evidence. This is the current procedure in obtaining a warrant against suspected criminals. If there is no proof or if the proof is weak, even though someone’s name ends in a vowel or a Z, no wiretap warrant is issued.

    It is easy to say “Monitor only telephones used by terrorists” but how do you know who is or isn’t a terrorist unless you monitor ALL phones? How do you isolate a terrorist’s cell phone to listen to from millions of cell phones used by non-terrorists???

    Which brings up another question. The government has been demanding that all encryption programs/algorithms have backdoors because terrorists might be conspiring in secret behind the encryption. Following that line of logic, is the government going to next demand that all living spaces be equipped with live microphones and cameras because terrorists might be conspiring in face to face meetings behind closed doors?!

  7. Do you think your government should be required to submit a warrant before accessing your personal emails? Tell us in a comment!
    No question of a doubt – they need a warrent.

  8. I also agree with Dragonmouth about this subject. The federal government is going to do exactly what they want to do anyhow.

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