This past weekend, I had to take a long road trip to help somebody with an interstate move. As I often do when I’m struggling to keep my eyes open after many hours on the road, I tuned in some talk radio. As luck would have it, I managed to catch a half-hour or so of Glenn Beck’s daily radio program. On this occasion, Mr. Beck was spending a good portion of his time selling a new e-mail service — one which he claimed would “never, ever, ever” surrender any content to Uncle Sam unless the government first came armed with a warrant. For this privilege, Mr. Beck expected listeners to subscribe to his TV channel, for the modest annual fee of $99.95.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not writing this blog post to discuss Glenn Beck’s politics, or even his (considerable) marketing acumen. No, I’m reserving my precious blog column-inches to call Glenn Beck out for something that is well within my professional wheel-house: the fact that he is misinformed about how e-mail service providers are actually obligated to work with law enforcement, and, more importantly, the fact that he is not helping in the effort to get the NSA out of America’s e-mail inboxes.
To be fair, Glenn Beck is promising one thing that is under his control (though there are any number of e-mail service providers who offer it without the $99.95/yr price tag): that his service will not scan its customers’ e-mail accounts for the purpose of serving ads that match content included in those e-mails. However, Mr. Beck’s other claim — that his e-mail service will only yield to government inspection upon presentation of a warrant — well, let’s spend a moment looking at that more carefully. We’ll start by examining how Glenn Beck himself describes his offering, in a recent online “broadcast”:
(Note: I’m not going to provide any links to Beck content in this blog post. It’s easy to find plenty of Glenn Beck-sanctioned information about his e-mail offer with a simple web search.)
Beck says: “Everybody is scanning your e-mails, so they can… target you for the Feds…”
We say: The NSA scans a portion of all internet traffic, large enough that it could possibly contain most or all e-mail traffic sent inside the United States. This is being done without the consent of ISPs, web hosts and other e-mail providers. In addition, all e-mail service providers/web hosts are required, by law, to surrender any e-mail content they may have if they are served with a warrant by law enforcement. In fact, as detailed by our COO, Christian Dawson, in this post, there are circumstances where law enforcement can force e-mail service providers to hand over your old e-mails without a warrant. You cannot avoid the NSA scanning, or law enforcement searches, no matter how much you pay Glenn Beck.
Beck says: “The NSA and Google (scan your e-mail), and they’re in bed with each other.”
We say: Beck is conflating things here. Gmail does scan its users’ e-mail accounts, in order to serve them with targeted advertising — which they see as the price users of its e-mail service pay to get Gmail for “free.” Separately, documents released by Edward Snowden suggest that the NSA has been eavesdropping on e-mail traffic headed into and out of the Google network, completely unbeknownst to Google. In addition to that, Google, like all e-mail service providers, is required by law to respond to warrants and legal, warrantless requests requiring them to share e-mail content, if they have any. These things are not related to one another.
Beck says: “We’re not surrendering any lists, any emails, anything, without a warrant…”
We say: As I mentioned before, there is nothing Glenn Beck can do to prevent the NSA from “reading” his customers’ e-mail, or to avoid legal warrantless demands for old e-mails — so there’s not much to that promise.
So what’s the takeaway here? If you want to protect your e-mail from unlawful inspection by the government, sending Glenn Beck $99.95 won’t accomplish anything. But a few minutes of your time might. Our COO has written two recent blog posts about things you can do that won’t cost you a dime, and could make a huge difference: supporting the USA FREEDOM Act and keeping abreast of developments surrounding ECPA. Do yourself, and your country, a favor by checking these posts out and contacting your congressmen to urge their support as required. Glenn Beck is right about one thing: unauthorized, extra-legal snooping into e-mail accounts is unethical, un-American, and just plain wrong. We just wish he would use his considerable influence to help change things for the better.
Photo credit: Ben McLeod