Deleted Gmail Subpoenaed

Michael Froomkin links to a story about a Federal Trade Commission subpoena sent to Google for the complete contents of a Gmail account, including deleted e-mail messages. (This is unrelated to the DOJ’s subpoena to Google for search terms and excerpts from its search database.) From the article:

The subpoena asks for not only current e-mail but also deleted e-mail: “All documents concerning all Gmail accounts of Baker…for the period from Jan. 1, 2003, to present, including but not limited to all e-mails and messages stored in all mailboxes, folders, in-boxes, sent items and deleted items, and all links to related Web pages contained in such e-mail messages.”

Google’s privacy policy says deleted e-mail messages “may remain in our offline backup systems” in perpetuity. It does not guarantee that backups are ever deleted. Baker estimated he may have tens of thousands of e-mail messages in his Gmail account.

Commentors at have noted that it isn’t entirely unreasonable for one’s deleted e-mail messages to be subject to searches or subpoenas. One states:

I’m not really disturbed by the deleted e-mail portion of this story. To me saying that they shouldn’t be subject to search is like saying that documents which have been shredded but can be reassembled should be immune from any search warrant or that, so long as you’ve thrown your drugs into the trash, the police shouldn’t be able to use them as evidence.

The lesson, then, is that deleting e-mails (especially those housed on third-party servers) is no guarantee that they are beyond the gaze of those who might benefit from seeing them.

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