Privacy is more precious than ever, and getting scarcer. Government agencies continue to push legal boundaries with surveillance cameras, drones, GPS tracking devices, x-ray scanners, stop-and-frisk searches without a warrant, sometimes without a suspicion of wrongdoing. It’s not just law enforcement agencies that are doing it. The tax man is in on the action, too.
The American Civil Liberties Union found this out by posing a simple question to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS): Do you obtain a warrant before reading the public’s emails, text messages and other electronic communications? The bureaucrats naturally responded with 247 pages of documents, which reveal that the IRS thinks it can read anything it pleases. Who needs a judge’s approval?
The cavalier attitude is codified in the 2009 edition of the IRS handbook, which declares the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures does not protect emails because users “do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications.” Citing the hopelessly obsolete Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which was written a few years before Al Gore invented the Internet, IRS snoopers argue they only need a subpoena to browse through emails that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old.
It’s an arbitrary and twisted reading of the statute that has already been brought up and shot down in a court of law. In a 2010 ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the government to provide the same respect for electronic communications as it offers to mail delivered by the postman or a call placed by a landline telephone. “If we accept that an email is analogous to a letter or a phone call,” the court ruled, “it is manifest that agents of the government cannot compel a commercial [Internet service provider] to turn over the contents of an email without triggering the Fourth Amendment.”
The IRS is being cagey about whether it actually abides by the court’s ruling everywhere in the country, or only within the 6th Circuit’s jurisdictional boundaries of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.
Rep. Charles W. Boustany Jr., Louisiana Republican, chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Oversight, has demanded that the agency provide concrete answers on how many email searches it has conducted and under what authority. Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, joined the bipartisan chorus of outrage, saying he has “serious concerns about the IRS‘ recent comments that it can search and seize citizens’ emails, Facebook posts, tweets and other digital communications without a warrant.”
“This is an affront not only to our system of checks and balances, but also to our fundamental right to privacy,” Mr. Udall says.
The IRS has access to more deeply personal information than just about any other agency of the government. It doesn’t need an open invitation to start seizing more data. Congress must restore the badly wounded Fourth Amendment to health by updating privacy laws in a way that denies creative bureaucrats the ability of abusing technology to pry into matters that are none of their business.
The Washington Times