Google details how it handles government requests for private data

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When it is not legally prohibited, Google notifies the users that their information is being turned over to the government, Drummond wrote.


He said Google requires that agencies conducting a criminal investigation obtain a search warrant to compel the company to turn over users' search histories and private content stored in their Google account — including Gmail messages, documents, photos and YouTube videos.

The Hill reported last week that Google, along with Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook, all began demanding in late 2010 or early 2011 that police obtain a warrant to access private user content. 

Those policies go beyond the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a 1986 law that only requires police to obtain a subpoena, issued without a judge's approval, to read emails, instant messages and other forms of digital communication that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old.

"We believe a warrant is required by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and overrides conflicting provisions in ECPA," Drummond wrote.

The four Web companies told The Hill that their policies are justified by United States v. Warshak, a 2010 federal appeals court ruling that found that police violated a man's constitutional rights by reading his emails without a warrant.

Traditionally, the courts have ruled that people have limited privacy rights over information they share with third parties, like email providers or social networks.

The Supreme Court has not addressed the Warshak case, and the decision does not bind police outside of the court's jurisdiction in Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is pushing legislation that would update ECPA to clarify that police need a warrant to seize electronic messages, regardless of how old they are.