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Email Privacy Act Passed in 419-0 House Vote

Email Privacy Act (2)

On Wednesday 27th April 2016, the US House of Representatives has passed a new email privacy bill called the Email Privacy Act which aims to strengthen the privacy protections for email and other cloud-storage services. The bill is proposed to require law enforcement authorities to obtain a search warrant before asking technology companies such as Google, Dropbox to hand over old emails and gain access to Americans’ texts, photos, videos and other electronic communication.

With an overwhelming bipartisan support of 419-0 unanimous votes from the House of Representatives, the House bill also had 314 co-sponsors, the highest number of any bill to come before this session of Congress. Under the current law of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), local, state and federal police agencies still have the authority to access citizens’ emails or other stored digital media at will without a warrant given that is is more than six months old. Agencies such as the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission would only require a subpoena to seek such data from any third-party service provider.

Email Privacy Act (1)

3 votes were added to the “Yea” total after the time ran out, totalling to 419 votes (Source: TechCrunch)

Clearly, the current laws of the ECPA are pretty outdated seeing that the ECPA was drawn up decades ago before cloud computing and the internet turned ubiquitous in our lives. For this exact reason, the new Email Privacy Act was introduced to close the glaring holes in the current ECPA which critics say violates Americans’ constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Advocates worried that the loophole is used thousands of times per day by all levels of government. For instance, since 2013, documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union pointed towards evidence that the IRS Criminal Tax Division has long been exploiting the warrantless searches loophole extensively to find tax discrepancies. Just earlier in April, Microsoft too had filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. government to reduce ECPA gag orders.

Times have changed since the ‘80’s, and with it, the advancement of technology and grey areas in types of digital communications vulnerable to be exploited. Pretty much every legislator explained during the debate period that the amenment was clearly “long overdue”.

“Under current law, there are more protections for a letter in a filing cabinet than an email on a server,” said Congresswoman Suzan Delbene (D-Wash.)

Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) who were authors of the bill both released a statement that the House vote was a “historic step toward updating our privacy laws for the digital age”.

Albeit the Email Privacy Act comes as a much awaited amendment on the 1986 ECPA, there are still rooms for improvement on the bill. In an earlier version of the introduced bill, a clause calling for law enforcement agencies to disclose to an affected citizen the warrant served to their email provider had been removed before the House voted on the bill because of law enforcement opposition. The provision initially read that citizens should be notified within 10 days if their digital data had been accessed through a warrantless search, or 3 days if the warrant related to a government entity, something that Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.), said he preferred in the bill’s original language. However, the provision was later scrapped in committee so that law enforcement officials need not have to notify citizens, although companies could still choose to notify their customers on the warrant, but only if the court deemed it would not result in any serious crime or terrorist act being committed. The clause was a compromise sought by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), at the request of law enforcement officials, something trade groups and some of the Representatives objected to as an unpleasant compromise.

While the Act has currently passed the House votes, the bill’s prospects in the Senate still remain unclear. The bill now faces the Senate approval, which experts say may not be as easy as the House passage, although the 419-0 vote in the House will likely put a renewed pressure on the upper chamber to take up on it. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee stated to The Washington Times:

“Members of this committee on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about the details of this reform, and whether it’s balanced to reflect issues raised by law enforcement.”

Grassley, who holds jurisdiction over the legislation chose not to comment otherwise when queried if the bill would move forward this election year, although Senators Leahy and Lee said they hoped for speedy passage and quick consideration of the bill.

 

Sources

[1] Congress Bill:

[2] USA Today

[3] TechCrunch

[4] New York Times

[5] Motherboard

[6] Sophos

[7] Slate

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