If you've ever wondered whether the U.S. Department of Justice has asked Microsoft or Google for your emails, you're probably still wondering. That's because the DOJ often issues gag orders that prevent your email service from letting you know you're under investigation.
Those gag orders, which prevent companies from talking to anyone about the investigation, are authorized by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. They can be used whenever a warrant is issued under the Act.
Microsoft and other email and cloud storage providers oppose these gag orders. For one thing, they're concerned that continuing to share customer data with the government without telling their customers will hurt their relationship with those clients. This, in turn, could harm the growing field of cloud storage.
How common is the practice? According to a Microsoft analysis, 68 percent of federal warrants were accompanied by gag orders over a single 18-month period. Moreover, those gag orders were indefinite, leaving Microsoft and other companies to conceal the government's demands even after the investigations in question were over.
In a lawsuit it filed last year, Microsoft alleged that the gag orders violate the company's First Amendment right to communicate honestly with its customers. It also alleged the gag orders violate the customers' rights to know if the government has searched or seized their data.
Reminder: If you are under investigation, don't discuss your case with anyone
While the above story refers to federal investigations, it is also important to remember that local law enforcement here in Pennsylvania can likely access your emails without gaining access to your computer. Your internet service provider will likely store your emails, and police can ask the recipient of any emails to show them the messages. Additionally, it will likely be easier for police to gain access to your work computer than your personal one.
If you know that you are under investigation, it is important that you do not discuss your case with anyone except your attorney. Anything you say in these emails could be used against you in a criminal case. If you have questions about your privacy rights and your case, you should always talk to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.