It may come as a surprise, but your emails and other electronic communications that are over 180 days old are not protected under federal or state law from warrantless access by the government. This means that law enforcement does not need a warrant to request and read any emails that you may have saved on an account, such as Gmail, for over six months.

Federal laws protecting the content of Americans’ private electronic communications, which date back to the mid-1980s, are so antiquated that they simply are not up to the task of protecting our privacy in the modern digital age. Due to the technological methods by which email was accessed and reviewed in the 1980s, under federal law, any emails that are more than 180 days old are considered “abandoned” and law enforcement does not need a warrant to read them.

Existing privacy laws require the police to get a warrant before searching the file cabinet or computer in your house or the letters in your mailbox. That same principle should apply when law enforcement wants to track or search your phone, read your emails, or access other digital documents that exist only online.

Would it bother you if a government official entered your home without a warrant, found and accessed your personal computer and then searched through all the emails and messages sent from that device? Of course it would. And you should feel exactly the same way about the government doing that secretly from a distance.

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