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Legal for the FBI to Read Your Email?

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By Andrew Lu on November 14, 2012 3:57 AM

Can the FBI read your email? If you are former CIA Director David Petraeus, the answer is apparently "yes." But critics are asking whether the FBI's actions in Petraeus' case were legal.

As you may have heard, Petraeus was allegedly involved in an extramarital affair with his married biographer, Paula Broadwell. The affair that took down the nation's spy chief was reportedly brought to light when the FBI discovered a series of intimate emails between the two, reports Yahoo! News.

This is true even though Petraeus and Broadwell allegedly employed some deceptive tactics, used by teenagers and terrorists alike, in keeping their emails secret.

To avoid creating an email trail, Petraeus and Broadwell reportedly adopted a common trick: The two shared a Gmail account and would save draft messages for each other to read. By only writing drafts and never hitting the "send" button, there were no sent email messages for the FBI to trace, according to Yahoo! News.

However, as FBI investigators were reportedly familiar with this draft email trick, agents were still able to dig up the messages. But just how legal was the FBI's snooping?

The answer is not entirely clear. Some assert that the FBI was perfectly within its rights to read Petraeus' draft emails. That's because investigators may have had reason to believe a crime was being committed, and may have been armed with subpoenas and/or warrants, Yahoo! reports.

So while the government can't simply dig through your private email messages and browse around for possible crimes, the government can dig through your email if they are investigating a suspected crime.

In fact, federal law allows government agents to examine electronic communications at least six months old if they get a federal prosecutor to sign off on a subpoena.

For more recent communications, a federal judge must sign off on a warrant. To obtain a warrant, the FBI generally must show that the person was involved with, or possessed evidence of, a crime.

Right now there are conflicting reports as to whether FBI agents possessed a proper subpoena or search warrant. Until more facts become clear, we won't know for certain how legal it was for the FBI to read Petraeus' email.

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