IRS denies snooping on taxpayers through email
Tax agents were told they didn't need warrant to root through emails, ACLU claims
As the date to file draws near, the Internal Revenue Service denies claims it's been spying on taxpayers by reading their emails or using other forms of electronic communication without a warrant. "Respecting taxpayer rights and taxpayer privacy are cornerstone principles for the IRS," the agency said in a statement. "Our job is to administer the nation's tax laws, and we do so in a way that follows the law and treats taxpayers with respect."
Some argue that the Fourth Amendment does not protect emails because Internet users don't "have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications," according to a 2009 IRS employee handbook.
However -- the American Civil Liberties Union claims that internal documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, reveal that agents were told they didn't need a warrant to root through emails, texts or Facebook pages of people it is investigating.
The ACLU says that this is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Some argue that the Fourth Amendment does not protect emails because Internet users don't "have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications," according to a 2009 IRS employee handbook. A lawyer for the agency reiterated the policy in 2010.
In spite of the IRS' latest statement, the current online version of the IRS manual says that no warrant is required for emails that are stored by an Internet storage provider for more than 180 days.
Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall says that the problem is that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the statute that polices law enforcement access to emails - is outdated and needs to be rewritten.
"This is an affront not only to our system of checks and balances, but also to our fundamental right to privacy," Udall said in a statement last week.
Udall wants to strengthen bipartisan support to overturn the ECPA. "In the meantime, I urge the IRS to reconsider its overreach," he said.
Opened emailed and email older than six months does not require a warrant under the current law. Email that hasn't been opened or is less than six months old does.
ACLU lawyer Nathan Wessler said his group will continue to its push to force the IRS to get permission before it looks at any electronic correspondence.
"The IRS should tell the public whether it always gets a warrant to access email and other private communications in the course of criminal investigations. And if the agency does not get a warrant, it should change its policy to always require one," Wessler wrote.
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