How the Government Can Read Your Email

While you may think that the messages you send and receive via email are only seen by yourself and the other sender or recipient, that may not necessarily be the case. Unless you’re using a private secure email, your account is at significant risk from scammers and hackers — but they’re not the only prying eyes who can access your email without significant effort; our own government has the ability to surveil your accounts. Most Americans think the federal government needs to jump through considerable hoops and operate only under judicial orders if they are looking to read private citizens’ email — but that, again, isn’t entirely accurate. Government email surveillance is a thing. Here’s how the government can read your email without warrants:

Congress recently reauthorized legislation known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Originally adopted in 1978 to outline procedures for federal surveillance to collect foreign intelligence and fight terrorism, the law has been continuously updated for modern times, including additions about email surveillance. Currently, FISA allows federal authorities to conduct electronic surveillance, without a warrant, for up to a year if the effort aims to acquire foreign intelligence about potential threats to the U.S., provided there is a low likelihood that U.S. citizens are involved in the communication. However, that last provision allows for broad interpretation and could be how the government can read your email without warrants.

Agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the National Security Administration are given significant latitude under FISA to conduct targeted, and warrantless, electronic surveillance of foreigners that could incidentally involve Americans. Even if citizens aren’t the intended targets of the investigation, they could very well find themselves — and their electronic communication — fully exposed if they happen to have communicated with a non-citizen or with an email recipient tangentially connected to the target of a surveillance program. An investigation very well may be launched that could, on its surface, appear not to involve U.S. citizens but — given the volume of electronic communication we all have, and their increasingly interconnected, global nature — messages to or from Americans can easily be swept up.

Email privacy should be a significant concern on the mind of every American. Registering for a private email account is one way to reduce risk, as it provides another layer of security to guard against external surveillance and government email surveillance.