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Editorial: Electronic Privacy; Unwarranted Google Searches

Yes, the Internet is a powerful and convenient tool. Just ask the government, which seems to be taking full advantage of the reach, power and ubiquity of electronic communication to snoop into the affairs of U.S. citizens.

Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, documents stored on the Internet have substantially less privacy protection than other personal communications. If a person receives a letter via the regular mail and tucks it away somewhere in the house, the government would be prohibited from taking a look at it without a search warrant. That would require the government — law enforcement, to be precise — to make the case in court that there was reason to suspect that person of wrongdoing and that the document was relevant to its investigation. That sort of protection is fundamental: The Bill of Rights protects private citizens and their belongings from being searched unless the government can show probable cause.

But if that letter was sent electronically via a cloud-based email service such as Google’s Gmail, the government would need to do nothing more than issue a subpoena if the document was more than 180 days old. Unlike search warrants, subpoenas are court orders that don’t require a court finding of probable cause. Considering how many people are using cloud-based information systems — services such as Gmail, in which users store and access documents remotely, or social network sites — that opens up a trove of information to the prying eyes of the government.

And the government isn’t shy about taking a peek. Google said it is getting about 1,400 requests a month from the government to look at stored emails and documents, and more than two-thirds come without a search warrant.

Google says it now resists providing access to detailed information — emails, text messages, videos, voicemails — without search warrants, although it continues to provide basic identifying information such as users’ names, locations and the times of communications. The company is also leading a campaign to protect Web-stored information.

“We want to be sure we’re taking our responsibilities really seriously, protecting our users’ information and being transparent about it,” said David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer.

It’s a campaign we strongly support and are happy to report has the support of Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy sponsored a bill last year that would make cloud-based information off-limits to investigators without search warrants.

While it’s encouraging to see Google throw its considerable weight behind the campaign, its credentials as a champion of privacy protection remain in doubt. Google may object to being used by government snoops, but that might be because it doesn’t want any competition. It was Google, after all, that ran into trouble with federal, state and European governments for the Street View cars it dispatched around the world. Turns out that those vehicles weren’t collecting only street-level images for use on its nifty mapping service; they were also vacuuming up information transmitted from wireless devices within homes — yes, all those emails, photos and social network postings that Google says the government should keep its hands off. When government officials began investigating whether Google was collecting the data for use in other products, the company distinguished itself mostly by its uncooperative or disingenuous responses to questions. Nothing much came of those investigations, and Google presumably has stopped the practice.

But whether or not the company is truly a convert to the cause of privacy, it’s a welcome ally in the battle against government intrusion. If and when that essential battle is won, the war for privacy can move on to the private sector.