Not long ago, if the government wanted to serve a search warrant as part of a criminal investigation, it had to do so in person, with notice. An agent or officer needed to bring a signed warrant to a house or building and hand it to the target of the probe at the front door; only then could the government search the premises for documents, records and computer files. This was true for individuals, businesses and governments alike. If secrecy required getting a “sneak and peek” warrant because evidence would be destroyed in advance or a witness’s safety would be jeopardized, this required a heightened showing, beyond mere probable cause.
Those principles still hold true today. Yet with the expansion of cloud computing in every industry, the federal and state governments know they quickly can obtain data electronically from sources other than the target. So that’s what they do. In secret. By serving search warrants on companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft to obtain emails and messages that belong to our customers. Government prosecutors also ask courts to impose gag orders on companies such as ours that prevent us from letting people know that copies of their emails are now in the government’s hands.