Who Is Reading Your Email, and for What Purpose?

Linda Musthaler
By | April 01, 2014

Posted in: Network Security Trends

Thanks to the NSA, so much attention has been on the fact that the federal government is collecting metadata about our phone calls that we have taken our eyes off what’s happening on the email front. There have been a few stark reminders in the news recently that email isn’t private and we shouldn’t use it to transmit sensitive information. It also prompts the question, “Do the ends justify the means when it comes to a need to know?”

In the first example, Microsoft admitted in federal court documents that it went into a blogger’s Hotmail account and searched for content. Not just any content, mind you, but for information about proprietary Microsoft code that an ex-employee had supposedly emailed to the blogger. Microsoft lawyers said they did not need any sort of search warrant to go into the account because the Hotmail terms of service permit Microsoft access to content on its own servers in such extreme cases.

In the end, Microsoft actually found the evidence it was looking for and the former employee was arrested for theft of intellectual property. What’s more, Microsoft believes its actions stopped the blogger from illegally selling the purloined code on the black market.

Good thing the ex-employee and blogger weren’t communicating via Gmail, huh? Microsoft couldn’t have gotten to those servers so easily.

In the next episode of “email isn’t private,” a US federal judge pushed back on the Justice Department for repeatedly requesting overly broad searches of people’s email accounts. The judge says he had received 20 such requests in a 4 month period of time. Rather than limiting this latest access request to very specific content tied to a criminal investigation, the Justice Department wanted “every email, contact, picture and transaction record associated with an account stored on Apple servers,” according to the New York Times. The article further states:

Judge Facciola, a former state and federal prosecutor who has been reviewing warrants as a judge since 1997, said he was increasingly concerned about the breadth of government searches. He said he was also troubled by the fact that the Justice Department never said how long it planned to keep the seized data or whether it planned to destroy information that proved irrelevant to the case.

The Justice Department said it needed access to all the content of the email account in this specific case in order to thoroughly search for evidence. That’s like the federal government saying it needs to collect everyone’s phone records in order to search for those handful of records that might pertain to terrorism or whatever it is they are looking for. Do they really need a log of my phone calls to my kids?

And in my final episode of “the government reads your email,” we learn that former president Jimmy Carter uses good old snail mail when he contacts a foreign leader because he doesn’t trust the NSA not to snoop on his email or phone calls. Carter says, “I believe if I send email, it will be monitored.”

Conspiracy theorists might surmise this is all a plot of the US Postal Service to get us to start snail mailing important letters again. Better go stock up on those Forever stamps before the next price hike.

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