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April 17, 2013


The IRS and access to taxpayer e-mail

Is the IRS reading your e-mail?

The IRS says it is not. Yesterday the acting commissioner of the IRS denied allegations that his agency gains access to taxpayers’ e-mail messages without obtaining search warrants.

In Texas and throughout the nation, taxpayers are naturally concerned about the IRS gaining too much access to their personal communications. Such concern is only natural for privacy reasons. And of course the stakes are even greater when possible tax evasion charges could result from a criminal investigation.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has alleged that the IRS has been looking at taxpayers’ e-mails by going directly to Internet service providers – without always getting a search warrant.

Yesterday, however, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller told a U.S. Senate committee that the IRS policy is to seek and obtain a warrant before turning to service providers for e-mail access when conducting criminal investigations.

But the acting commissioner did not resolve the question of what policy the IRS has toward information contained in social media posts. Many people increasingly rely on communicating with others through Facebook or Twitter rather than through a separate e-mail service like Google’s gmail.

In a recent ruling, a federal appeals court held that a showing of probable cause is necessary by the government before it requests e-mail content from service providers. The case is called United States v. Warshak. The IRS is updating its policy to clarify that search warrants are indeed required in such cases.

The ACLU has all of its questions on IRS access to taxpayer e-mail are not yet answered. In particular, it is not yet clear whether the IRS is only complying with a specific federal law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. That rather out-dated law, from the mid 1980s, protects e-mail privacy for only 180 days.

Source: “IRS denies email snooping without a warrant,” MarketWatch, Jonnelle Marte, 4-16-13

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