IN THE LATEST illustration of the Bush administration's disregard for your privacy, the Justice Department is trying to convince a panel of federal judges that the FBI should be free to read your e-mail without obtaining a warrant.
It's not all your e-mail -- only messages left on a Web-based system such as Hotmail or on your Internet service provider's computers. A 1986 law forbids the interception and disclosure of e-mail and other online transmissions without a warrant. But there is an exception. If the messages are more than 180 days old, they can be obtained merely with a subpoena or a court order, which investigators can obtain more easily than a warrant.
Now the Justice Department is arguing, in a case before an appeals court in Ohio, that even new messages can be obtained without a warrant if their intended recipient has already read them. The Justice Department views an opened e-mail left on a service provider's computer as more like a postcard left on a table than a sealed letter in a drawer. Which is to say, its owner has no reasonable expectation of privacy.
About a jillion e-mail users would beg to differ. The Internet is far more popular, and connections to it more persistent, than they were in 1986. Yahoo, Google and other Web-based services offer vast storage capacity to users, enticing them to treat their online inboxes as file cabinets. Part of the utility of these services is that they enable people to keep all their e-mail in one place that can be reached from any Internet-connected computer, not just the one in their home or office.