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February 2, 2006: Judge Rules E-Mail Surveillance Legal

A federal judge rules that the USA Patriot Act allows the federal government to trace e-mail information without court warrants or evidence of criminal behavior. As part of a secret ongoing grand jury investigation, the Justice Department asked the court to approve the monitoring of an unnamed person’s e-mail correspondents—not the contents of the e-mails, which would require evidence of wrongdoing, but instead the identities and e-mail header information. The magistrate judge in that case refused, and asked the Justice Department to submit an additional brief demonstrating that its request would be legal. Instead of submitting the brief, the Justice Department went to US District Judge Thomas Hogan, a Reagan appointee. Hogan reviewed the federal law dealing with “pen register” and “trap and trace” devices, terms having to do with telephone wiretapping, and today rules that those laws “unambiguously” authorize such e-mail surveillance. Hogan rules that the Patriot Act authorizes that sort of e-mail surveillance, as long as prosecutors note that such surveillance might be “relevant” to an investigation. (United States District Court for the District of Columbia 3/10/2001; McCullagh 2/9/2006)


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