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Yes, the IRS Can Read Your Emails If It Wants

IRS email
Alamy / DailyFinance
If you've been swapping emails with your crooked accountant about the best way to avoid paying taxes, be aware: The IRS says it has the right to go into your account and read them.

ArsTechnica flags a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out whether the IRS is reading your emails without a warrant.

The tax-collection agency did not explicitly answer the question of whether its investigative arm always gets a warrant before opening suspects' emails. But the ACLU says that its review of the documents indicate that it does not.

A bit of background is necessary here. When it comes to getting a warrant to read your email, the relevant law is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was enacted way back in 1986. As you might expect, the law is a bit dated: According to the law, a government agency can read your email without a warrant as long as the email has been opened, or if it's been sitting in your inbox for more than 180 days. Only unopened email that's been on the server for less than 180 days requires a warrant.
It's exactly the kind of arbitrary distinction you might expect from a law written before email was widely used and understood. And accordingly, a Sixth Circuit appeals court ruled in 2010 that in fact, agencies needed to get a warrant before reading any emails, not just those that were new and unopened.

Before that decision, the IRS was certainly opening emails without warrants -- in fact, the ACLU got hold of an internal handbook claiming that the "the Fourth Amendment does not protect communications held in electronic storage."

The question, then, is whether those practices changed after the Sixth Circuit decision.

The ACLU's investigation suggest they did not: A 2011 update to its internal policies maintains the standard that "Investigators can obtain everything in an account except for unopened e-mail or voice mail stored with a provider for 180 days or less" without a warrant.

The IRS has lots of ways to investigate you if it thinks you've been hiding something. In addition to searching your email and voicemail, it may also search your social media accounts for incriminating information (though it denies that it may audit you based on something it finds on one of those accounts, insisting that audits are based strictly on your filed return.)

The ACLU is calling on the IRS to amend its procedures to bring them in line with the Fourth Amendment. In the meantime, just be aware that the taxman might sift through your inbox if he thinks you're holding something back.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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Big Brother is alive and well and has been us far longer than 1984, Freedom of Speech etc, only on paper not in practice........soon our emails will have thick black out lines through portions of our text that we send and receive without our knowledge.......chilling

April 15 2013 at 10:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Only a liberal/socialist/communist politician could turn the book "1984" into a how to manual!

April 15 2013 at 10:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

....Oh, now I know what BarryO's new army of IRS agents are used for and why the Feds "strong arm" Google when they need to "Chicago style"....

April 15 2013 at 9:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If you have been audited and the IRS says you owe money and wants to allow you to make payments, do not pay with a personal check. The IRS then has your bank account number, which they can then tap for whatever amount they want when they want.

April 15 2013 at 9:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The IRS needs someone to snoop on them as they are an illegal entity according to the constitution of this country

April 15 2013 at 9:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The IRS can do anything they want to,steal your childs piggy bank if you get in trouble,or,let you hide billions of undeclared earnings if you are wealthy.
Make no mistake,they know who you are and where you live.

April 15 2013 at 8:38 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply


April 15 2013 at 3:52 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to metusmetu's comment

It used to be called the "USSR" (United Socialist Soviet Russia) now our major trade/supplier China they are a Communist Country. Just wanted to point that out in hopes of stopping my old History Teacher from rolling in has grave, it would drive him nuts when he heard that.

July 08 2013 at 6:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

see what they are doing to us now----and people want to let the gov. take away our guns----imagine what kind of stuff they would pull if we were unarmed.. beleive it when they say our gov is the terrorist

April 15 2013 at 12:30 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wes-n-family's comment

Taking up arms against the US military is suicide.Does any of you honestly think you would live more then a mili second ina fight with the marines? Come on.
Lets just pay our taxes and VOTE

April 15 2013 at 8:40 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to spike's comment

We would not be taking up arms agains the US military. As citizens we'd be protecting ourselves from an overreaching government and obamanuer's "special police, trained and armed like the military."

Our military has sworn to obey all LEGAL orders. An order to fire on citizens who are exercising their rights under the Constitution would not be legal, and there would be no requirement to obey.

I also believe our military are intelligent enough to understand that what they do to us today will be done to them in the future.

April 15 2013 at 10:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

They don't need to read my e-mails,after my accountant called this afternoon I think they have a camera set up directly over my accounts receivable sheet.

April 14 2013 at 5:35 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

But we can't ask suspected illegals for proof of citizenship.

April 14 2013 at 4:43 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply