By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge in New York has granted prosecutors access to a Gmail user's emails as part of a criminal probe, in a decision that could fan the debate over how aggressively the government may pursue data if doing so may invade people's privacy.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein said on Friday he had authorized a warrant to be served on Google Inc for the emails of an unnamed individual who is the target of a money laundering investigation.
Gorenstein said his decision ran counter to several other federal judges' rulings in similar cases, including in Washington, D.C., and Kansas, that sweeping warrants may give the government improper access to too many emails, not just relevant ones.
But he said the law lets investigators review broad swaths of documents to decide which are covered by warrants.
"Courts have long recognized the practical need for law enforcement to exercise dominion over documents not within the scope of the warrant in question to determine whether they fall within the warrant," he said.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ruling came three months after U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis in New York said prosecutors can force Microsoft Corp to hand over a customer's email stored in an Ireland data center.
Microsoft has appealed, in what is seen as the first challenge by a company to a search warrant seeking data stored overseas.
Companies including Verizon Communications Inc and AT&T Inc have filed briefs in support of Microsoft, as has the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group. A hearing is set for July 31 before U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York.
The government's ability to seize personal digital information has grown more contentious since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents in June 2013 to several media outlets outlining the agency's massive data collection programs.
In June, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers almost always need a warrant to search an arrested suspect's cellphone, citing concerns about privacy rights. In doing so, the court noted the enormous wealth of data contained on mobile devices, including emails and photos.
Earlier this year, a magistrate judge in Washington, D.C., rejected a warrant seeking to review an Apple Inc email account of a defense contractor as part of a kickback investigation.
Last year, a magistrate judge in Kansas tossed warrant applications for emails and instant messages stored at Google, Verizon, Yahoo! Inc <YHOO.O>, Microsoft unit Skype and GoDaddy for five individuals suspected in a stolen computer equipment case.
In both decisions, the judges said the warrants were overly broad.
On the other hand, several U.S. appeals courts have rejected motions to suppress such searches, concluding that investigators are permitted to search entire accounts for relevant emails, Gorenstein said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Richard Chang)