Email Warrant Measure Gets Senate Judiciary Nod
A measure that would require law enforcement to get a warrant to read citizens’ emails regardless of their age or whether they have been opened passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a voice vote Thursday.
The bipartisan measure, jointly written by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.; pictured above) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), comes in the form of an amendment to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or ECPA. ECPA was first passed in 1986 and requires law enforcement to get a subpoena, not a warrant with a judge’s signature, to read emails fewer than 180 days old or those that have been opened.
The Leahy-Lee amendment would also prohibit companies from disclosing the contents of customers’ communications to the government and requires the government to notify a citizen when his or her email has been disclosed via warrant.
It does, however, allow the government to delay such notice in some cases, such as when such notice might tip off a suspect to investigators’ work. The amendment would still allow investigators to use a subpoena to access information such as a service customers’ name, address and IP address and to access internal corporate communications.
ECPA has become the center of a heated debate on the proper balance between citizens’ online privacy and the efficacy of police investigations. Privacy rights groups argue that ECPA’s treatment of email and other electronic communications as different than physical mail has been as out of date, while law enforcement groups have argued requiring a judge’s approval to read suspects’ emails would slow investigations and potentially put lives at risk.
The Judiciary Committee’s vote can be counted as a victory for privacy activists, though they now face the challenge of getting the amendment passed in the full Senate.
“With the vote today, Congress took a huge step toward finally updating ECPA to ensure emails and documents we store in the cloud receive the same Fourth Amendment Protections as postal mail and documents we store in desk drawers in our homes,” said Greg Nojeim Senior Counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which has been pushing for ECPA reform.
“The Senate Judiciary Committee’s passage of the Electronic Communications Privacy Amendments Act of 2013 is a significant step in safeguarding the privacy of users’ electronically stored content,” said The Internet Association, a lobby group that counts such companies as Google, Facebook and Amazon among its members, in a separate statement.
Following the vote, Leahy celebrated his amendment’s victory on Twitter:
— Sen. Patrick Leahy (@SenatorLeahy) April 25, 2013
A summary of the amendment posted by Leahy’s office is embedded below. Should police need a warrant to read your emails? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Image via Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
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