updated 12:00 am EDT, Wed March 19, 2014
Cites 'expectation of privacy' in email, says warrant was 'overly broad'
While specifics of the case have not been made public, a federal magistrate judge has issued an unusual rebuke to the US government over its request for a warrant to search the records of an unnamed @mac.com user. The request was rejected by the judge for being "overly broad" and because it "makes no effort to balance the law enforcement interests against the obvious expectation of privacy email account holders have in their communications."
The case revolves around alleged corruption by a defense contractor, and the government's warrant request asked for "all records or other information stored by an individual using each account, including address books, contact and buddy lists, pictures, and files," and other details such as logged IP addresses, billing details, and other details, reports Ars Technica. However, Judge John Facciola noted that "it is evident ... that the government is really after emails from December to the present. Nothing in Attachment B, however, explicitly requests that Apple gives the government any emails."
After complaining that "the government continues to submit overly broad warrants ," the judge pointed out that the request contradicts itself by wanting the content of emails without specifically asking for them, but for just about any other detail regarding the account -- phrasing he called "poor drafting" that created "confusion" in the request.
"It is equally evident that the government is using language that has the potential to confuse the provider-in this case Apple-which must determine what information must be given to the government," Judge Facciola said in his ruling. "This Court should not be placed in the position of compelling Apple to divine what the government actually seeks. Until this Application is clarified, it will be denied." The root problem with the government's request, said the judge, is that it is relying on seizure guidelines issued in 2009, a year before an appellate court ruled that email content is protected under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.
Major tech firms, including Google and (presumably) Apple, have taken the position that the government needs a specific warrant before it can ask to access email content. Only one federal circuit has thus far ruled on the question, finding that authorities do need a warrant. Judge Facciola issued his ruling earlier this month, but left the door open for the government to refile a narrower request.
The ruling is part of an evolving pro-privacy stance that more of the judiciary is taking in light of Edward Snowden's revelations on the US government's "bulk" collection of electronic as well as phone and other forms of communication. Public backlash against what is seen as over-reaching invasions of privacy under the guise of "security" and an attitude by authorities that email (and texts or chats) is a less-protected form of speech may be having an influence on judges, who are in some jurisdictions requiring the government to be very specific in its requests for record searches where there is no evidence of actual security threats.