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Senate Approves Bill Requiring Warrants for E-mail Searches

An update to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act will require law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant before searching electronically-stored data.

by / December 4, 2012
Photo from Shutterstock

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week approved a bill that overhauls the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), strengthening privacy protection for e-mails and other electronic communications.

The ECPA, a law from 1986, is generally viewed as outdated, and the update requires law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant from a judge before gaining access to electronically-stored data, such as e-mails.

Cell phone data -- such as text messages and GPS coordinates -- are also useful tools in criminal cases. In some cases, courts allowed warrantless cell phone searches; in other instances, courts threw out police-obtained cell phone data, citing the Fourth Amendment. Under this new bill, HR 2471, giving notice to a phone customer that his or her records have been subpoenaed is not required.

Passage of the original law was led by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who also has been pushing to see it updated. Leahy likened e-mails on a server to files in a person's filing cabinet, and called for similar privacy protections. “Like many Americans, I am concerned about the growing and unwelcome intrusions into our private lives in cyberspace,” Mr. Leahy told The New York Times. “I also understand that we must update our digital privacy laws to keep pace with the rapid advances in technology.” 

While many supported the updates to the ECPA, such as officials the Center for Democracy and Technology, who called the committee vote “historic,” there were detractors. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said the bill does not balance public safety with privacy, and could create barriers in investigations of certain cases, such as abduction or child pornography cases.

But Leahy said the bill does not alter laws that apply to emergencies and other cases where time is a critical factor. Leahy also said this bill is simply a starting point and open for negotiation as the bill continues on its journey toward becoming law.

Whether the House will finish considering the bill this year is still unclear, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Photo from Shutterstock

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