This should be no surprise. In February, Google admitted to opening email files to the feds. Yet, it actually goes back to Ronald Reagan, who signed the Electronic Communications Act of 1986 empowering the government to snoop into your private life. George W. Bush further expanded the law and gave it real teeth after 9/11 with his signing of the Patriot Act.
But is it illegal? The answer will surprise and shock you. Google has acknowledged that it routinely allows local, state and federal government access to copies of private emails. In 2012 alone, Google said it received 13,943 governmental requests for email access from 31,072 accounts.
As I researched the issue and studied Google’s explanation, I realized that such a policy is legal. A person’s communication and documents in his possession are protected, and to gain access, any agency must show “probable cause” and secure a search warrant to seize or read such communication. Here is the catch: Internet emails are not in the possession of the sender or receiver, but are always stored at a distant location in the possession of the Internet Service Provider (ISP). Consequently, emails do not have protection from open access.
An excellent comparison is your sack of personal garbage. Until placed on the curb on garbage pickup day, the contents are protected and require a warrant for access. Yet, when placed outside the residence, contents are in the public domain and your local police can legally rummage through your garbage at will without providing any probable cause.
James W. Anderson