US Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein gave prosecutors access to a Gmail account owned by a suspect under investigation for money laundering, according to Reuters. The Friday ruling brings up privacy concerns especially since other magistrates have denied such warrants saying they were too broad.
Google did not responded to a request for comment by Reuters as of Monday.
This sets legal precedent that could have an impact on future decisions, potentially taking away an individual’s right to privacy. It may also negatively impact service providers that may be required to hand over user data, causing mistrust in it’s service. There is already an investigation into the UK and US mass surveillance of individual’s data.
Just three months ago US Magistrate Judge James Francis granted prosecutors access to a Microsoft customer’s email housed in an Ireland data center in what is considered the first decision of that type. Microsoft has appealed. Verizon Communications, AT&T, Cisco Systems, Apple and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have all filed briefs supporting Microsoft. US District Judge Loretta Preska will hear the case at the end of the month.
John Facciola, a Washington DC magistrate, considered a request for access to an Apple email account, but denied it. The owner of the account is a defense contractor under suspicion for kickbacks. He issued several other opinions recently similar to this issue.
Google, Verizon, Skype, GoDaddy and Yahoo! Inc. were the targets of request for emails and records in a stolen computer equipment case. The Kansas Magistrate rejected the warrant applications.
The requests for warrants in DC and Kansas were rejected because there were no limits to what the prosecutors could obtain from the email accounts.
All of the magistrates issuing rulings on these cases are well aware of the controversy, issuing opinions that were lengthy in comparison to typical warrant denials or acceptance. In an email to Reuters, the Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Hanni Fakhoury said he disagreed with the analysis issued in the decision, although he appreciated Gorenstein for explaining his decision in writing. “The more voices and opinions we can add to the discussion, the better,” said Fakhoury.
Gorenstein said since it’s not possible to search the hard-disk drives and other storage on the spot to the difficulty of electronic searches that authorities can take the storage. “We perceive no constitutionally significant difference between the searches of hard drives just discussed and searches of email accounts,” the judge wrote.
Since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents in 2013, issues around government data collection have been hotly debated. It seems eventually one of these cases regarding data collection will end up in the Supreme Court.
In June the US Supreme Court ruled police need a warrant to search a suspect’s cellphone. The decision was based on concern for an individual’s privacy. It sets precedent for at least needing a warrant, but it seems the scope of the warrant is not easily defined.
It’s important for service providers to get involved in the debate. As Fakhoury said, the more voices and opinions the better. Having service providers comment in addition to law enforcement will better balance the discussion.