How Private Is Your Personal Email?

Just how private is your email and how much access to it does the federal government have? The laws offer fewer protections than you might think.

As more information about the extra-marital affair and subsequent resignation of General David Petraeus emerges, it's clear the federal government was able to probe into the personal email accounts of not only the CIA director, but private citizens as well, without obtaining warrants.

ACLU Staff Attorney Catherine Crump says the laws governing email and digital communications are unclear.

"Actually the law is quite archaic. It says that if email is less than 180 days old, then the government does need a warrant to look at that email. But they say that if the email is older than that, then they don't need a warrant. It's sufficient to meet a lesser standard."

The ACLU's position is that email is private and sensitive and the government should have to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before it looks at someone's email. Crump says the lesson for email users is to remember that once you send electronic messages, you have no control over what happens to that information.

"You know if they were to consent, for example, for someone to look in their email inbox, it doesn't violate your rights if someone else gives permission to the government for them to see the email that you sent. So I think we just all need to be aware that digital information is never deleted and we should remember that when we're using our electronic devices."

Crump says although most people think of email as the modern equivalent of postal mail, unlike letters and written documents, email is not federally protected.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...