Many of us Americans are currently scrambling to finish our tax returns best we can. Invariably, some people will be tempted to stretch the truth with their numbers. But if you do this year, don’t talk about it online: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is alleging that the federal government may be violating Americans’ Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search with regard to email.
In the IRS Search Warrant Handbook (PDF), obtained by the ACLU, agents are assured that looking into your digital communiqués without a probable cause warrant is within the bounds of the law. “Like files shared over a network, email and other transmissions generally lose their reasonable expectation of privacy and thus their Fourth Amendment protection once they have been sent from an individual’s computer,” the document reads. The ACLU also points out that in 2010 the IRS Office of Chief Counsel asserted in a presentation that the “4th Amendment Does Not Protect Emails Stored on Server,” and that there is “No Privacy Expectation” in email and other similar electronic communications.
Legally, the IRS appears to be in the wrong. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the government needs a warrant before it can force the company that hosts your email to hand over your records. Though the IRS can argue that the decision only applies to the part of the country covered by the Sixth Circuit, many major email providers like Google have stated that they will honor the court’s decision nationwide and refuse to disclose personal email without the OK of a judge.
Still, even with industry opposition and court precedent, the ACLU notes that the federal government still appears to be clinging to the assertion that it is legal for IRS agents to obtain digital communications without a warrant. The organization is urging lawmakers to update the 1986 law that governs such digital seizures to clarify the need for a warrant.
On the other hand, there are things you can do ensure the IRS has no interest in your taxes. Check out our guide to apps and sites that make tax filing easier.