House lawmaker questions IRS over email search policy

The chairman of a House subcommittee is demanding more information from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about its practice of searching the emails of suspected tax fraudsters.

In a letter to the IRS on Thursday, Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Oversight, asked for the IRS to explain when it believes it can search emails without a warrant and how many searches it has conducted since 2010. He asked the agency to provide all internal memos and guidelines on its email search policy.

Boustany also asked the IRS to provide information about whether it mines Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites for information on taxpayers.

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In a statement on Thursday, the IRS said that "respecting taxpayer rights and taxpayer privacy are cornerstone principles for the IRS." 

"Our job is to administer the nation's tax laws, and we do so in a way that follows the law and treats taxpayers with respect," the agency said. "Contrary to some suggestions, the IRS does not use emails to target taxpayers. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released internal IRS documents on Wednesday in which the agency claimed that, in many cases, it does not need a warrant to access emails, text messages and other electronic communications. The ACLU obtained the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In a 2009 handbook, for example, the IRS said the Fourth Amendment does not protect emails because Internet users "do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications."

Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, government officials only need a subpoena, issued without a judge's approval, to demand that an Internet company turn over emails that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old.

Privacy groups, however, argue that the Fourth Amendment provides greater privacy protections than ECPA and that police and other officials should need a warrant to access electronic messages. A 2010 appeals court decision backed a warrant requirement for email searches, but the Supreme Court has yet to settle the issue.

Lawmakers in both chambers are currently working on legislation to update ECPA to require warrants to search all emails, regardless of how old they are.