IRS Claims It Can Read People’s E-Mails Without Needing a Warrant

April 10, 2013

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has succeeded in obtaining a series of documents from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), with a frightening find:

The documents the ACLU obtained make clear that, before Warshak, it was the policy of the IRS to read people’s email without getting a warrant. Not only that, but the IRS believed that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to email at all. A 2009 “Search Warrant Handbook” from the IRS Criminal Tax Division’s Office of Chief Counsel baldly asserts that “the Fourth Amendment does not protect communications held in electronic storage, such as email messages stored on a server, because internet users do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications.” Again in 2010, a presentation by the IRS Office of Chief Counsel asserts that the “4th Amendment Does Not Protect Emails Stored on Server” and there is “No Privacy Expectation” in those emails.

The IRS then lost U.S. v. Warshak, which held (unsurprisingly) that the IRS did have to abide by the Fourth Amendment and needed warrants to read e-mails. The ACLU wants to know (as should all good Americans) whether the IRS has changed its practices or whether it continues to advise agents to read e-mails without warrants. The ACLU says the most recent IRS manual has not changed its pre-Warshak guidance.

The Hill asked the IRS for comment, but they declined.

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