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E-mail Privacy Bill May Pass House Vote

25 Jun, 2014 By: Doug McPherson

WASHINGTON – The Email Privacy Act (H.R. 1852), a bill that would tighten digital privacy laws, has enough support to pass in the House of Representatives, news sources say.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS), Rep. Jared Polis (D-C)) and Rep. Sam Graves (R-GA), has support from 218 lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House and the White House. It says the government has to have a search warrant (instead of a subpoena) before accessing E-mails, documents, or other information stored in the cloud.

Today, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) says law enforcement must get a search warrant before accessing E-mails that are less than six months old, but not older ones. For those, law enforcement only needs a subpoena, which is easier to get than a search warrant.

Officials can get a subpoena by showing that an E-mail account might hold information that’s “relevant” to an investigation – a relatively lax standard. For a search warrant, a judge must believe there’s probable cause that the material sought will yield evidence of a crime.

Google and other Web companies that offer cloud storage have been pushing to revise the law by contending that differentiating between documents based on how long they’ve been stored doesn’t make sense.

David Lieber, senior privacy policy counsel at Google, wrote in a blog post, “ECPA no longer reflects users’ reasonable expectations of privacy. Congress should send a clear message about the limits of government surveillance by enacting legislation that would create a bright-line, warrant-for-content standard.”

The Direct Marketing Association (DMA) agrees and has made ECPA reform a priority because protecting E-mails from government surveillance will help preserve what it calls the “data-driven economy.”

“The Yoder-Graves-Polis bill gives Congress the rare opportunity to guarantee the same amount of privacy to electronic communications as those offline,” the DMA says in a blog post.

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), called support for the bill “great news” and added, “One important thing to understand is this isn’t just stated support. They’ve committed to a particular bill and could pass it tomorrow if it came for a vote.”

He said the ACLU would have liked to see more done in the bill, but “this bill does one thing very well: It protects the content of E-mails.”

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