04/11/2013 06:03 pm ET

Mark Udall: IRS Email Surveillance Claim An 'Affront' To Civil Liberties

NEW YORK -- A civil liberties-minded senator from Colorado is hitting the IRS over its claim that it doesn't need a warrant to read emails in its search for tax cheats.

Sen. Mark Udall (D) said in a statement Thursday he has "serious concerns about the IRS's recent comments that it can search and seize citizens' emails, Facebook posts, tweets and other digital communications without a warrant."

"This is an affront not only to our system of checks and balances, but also to our fundamental right to privacy," Udall said.

Udall's comments were in response to Thursday's release of documents from the IRS obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union. Those files show that the IRS asserts that its criminal tax investigation division can pour over the content of emails with a simple procedural subpoena.

The IRS said in response to the ACLU document release that it respects Americans' privacy.

"Respecting taxpayer rights and taxpayer privacy are cornerstone principles for the IRS," the agency said in a statement not attributed to anyone by name. "Our job is to administer the nation's tax laws, and we do so in a way that follows the law and treats taxpayers with respect. Contrary to some suggestions, the IRS does not use emails to target taxpayers. Any suggestion to the contrary is wrong."

It's not known how widely the IRS has exercised its claimed power, since some email providers, like Google, have said they will only divulge content in criminal investigations after they receive a warrant. But Udall said the mere fact the IRS thinks it can read those emails without a warrant, because of the outdated law that governs email privacy, is a cause for concern. Efforts are ongoing in Congress to update the law.

"At the very least, this is evidence that Congress must make strengthening our privacy laws a top priority in order to prevent these types of actions from occurring," Udall said. "In particular, I welcome bipartisan efforts to overhaul the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. In the meantime, I urge the IRS to reconsider its overreach. Our Constitution at the very least demands some restraint until Congress has time to act."


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