Privacy advocates were dealt a major blow on July 18, when a federal judge in New York ruled that law enforcement has the legal authority to search the entire email account of an unnamed individual who police believe was involved in a money laundering scheme.

Google is now legally required to hand over the entire contents of the unnamed individual’s Gmail account — including all emails sent, received and drafted, all contacts, and other information —  to federal prosecutors.

In his 23-page ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein wrote that email accounts should be treated like hard drives when it comes to search and seizure principles. In other words, Gorenstein believes law enforcement should be able to go through an individual’s entire email account if prosecutors can demonstrate probable cause showing a “sufficient chance of finding some needles in the computer haystack.”

“For example, in a drug investigation, it might be obvious based on information from an informant or other source that emails referring to the purchase or importation of ‘dolls’ refers to cocaine, but investigators might only learn as the investigation unfolds that a seemingly innocuous email referring to purchase of ‘potatoes’ also refers to a cocaine shipment,” the judge wrote.

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