IRS will not seek taxpayer emails without a warrant

BY ALISTAIR M. NEVIUS

The IRS on Wednesday announced a new policy regarding how it will request emails from internet service providers (ISPs) (IRS Policy Statement 4-120). Under the new policy, the IRS will obtain a search warrant “in all cases when seeking … the content of email communications stored by the ISP.” In addition, the policy statement says the IRS will not seek emails during civil administrative proceedings.

The policy statement also says that the IRS will update any guidance “that is not in accord” with the new policy.

The issue of whether the IRS obtains search warrants before seeking emails from ISPs was raised in April, when the American Civil Liberties Union reported that documents it had obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request suggested that it was the IRS’s position that it did not need to obtain a warrant before reading taxpayer emails during criminal investigations.

In response, House Subcommittee on Oversight Chairman Charles Boustany, R-La., asked the IRS to provide him with its policy and procedures for when a search warrant is needed to review private emails. He also asked for information about ways the IRS may gather taxpayer information from social media.

The report also prompted the introduction of a bill, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2013, S. 607, that would prohibit ISPs from voluntarily disclosing customer emails to the government. The bill would also require the government to notify an individual when it obtains that person’s email from an ISP.

Alistair M. Nevius ( anevius@aicpa.org ) is the JofA’s editor-in-chief, tax.

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