7NEWS investigates: How private are your emails?

Petraeus scandal brings to light issue of privacy

The scandal surrounding former CIA Director David Petraeus is bringing to light the issue of government and how much access it has to private email.

Petraeus and his mistress reportedly used a tactic terrorists use to communicate through email. They created a shared account and password on a website like Google. But instead of sending emails to one another, the couple wrote draft emails to each other and saved the messages in their account. The tactic made the messages harder to trace.

A University of Colorado law professor who has studied government and email access said parts of all of our messages are easily accessible.

"Big brother is watching a lot of the time and sometimes he's not allowed to watch," said Aya Gruber.

Gruber said, in many ways, technology has extended the government's reach.

"They have a lot more leeway to look at email than to look at your private mail or listen to private phone conversations," she said.

A new report shows government surveillance is on the rise.

In its latest Transparency Report, Google on Tuesday reported government requests for user information rose to 20,938 for the first part of 2012, up from 18,257 similar requests at the end of 2011.

Gruber wasn't surprised and said the issue boils down to how courts view electronic communication.

She said courts haven't kept up with technology and have set up few barriers to government accessing electronic communication. Right now the feds can get access to your basic email logs and headers with only a request or subpoena. They can also request that information without notifying the user involved.

"With all of these electronic communications…what are our expectations of privacy?" asked Gruber. "The government wants to say, 'Not much.'"

Usually, a warrant is needed for investigators to search your home or tap your phone. Gruber predicts the email and electronic communication issue will soon go to the Supreme Court.

"I think we're going to increasingly see the courts getting involved and policing the government from snooping on the actual communications in emails," she said.

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