America Ready to Ditch a 31-Year-Old Law as the House Passes the Email Privacy Act

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Feb 7, 2017
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No one wants the government to look into their emails without a warrant. Privacy advocates have long argued that the law enforcement agencies should be required to go through the process of acquiring a warrant before demanding the tech companies just hand over user data whenever they please.

This is the reason why a bipartisan group of lawmakers has reintroduced the “Email Privacy Act” after it failed to pass last year. Last year, it was ditched because Senator John Cornyn and current Attorney General Jeff Sessions added a loophole that would have allowed the agencies to bypass the new law under extraordinary circumstances.

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This year, the bill has managed to pass the House of Representatives by a unanimous voice vote. However, the question remains whether it will be approved by the Senate and if President Donald Trump will sign it.

Congress passes “Email Privacy Act” that tightens America’s email privacy laws

In a welcoming move, the House of Representatives has passed a better law that focuses on respecting user privacy of email communications. The Email Privacy Act (H.R. 387) has bipartisan support and requires the law enforcement to obtain a warrant before accessing the email communications of an American citizen.

Currently, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) governs LEA’s access to email communications, which was passed in 1986. This 31-year-old law allows the government to obtain email records without a warrant in cases when the emails are more than 180 days old and are stored on a third-party server. “Agencies such as the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission only need a subpoena, which is subject to less judicial oversight than a warrant, to seek such data from a service provider,” Reuters reported.

Microsoft and several other technology companies have long called on Congress to introduce better and more “relevant” laws that could govern the latest communication technologies. While the Email Privacy Act also needs some tweaking to be approved wholeheartedly by privacy advocates, it is definitely a winning moment for US citizens.

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Some reservations…

The American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) said that the Email Privacy Act “gutted a key privacy protection,” as “the bill eliminated individuals’ basic right to be notified if the government requests access to electronic content information. The result is that Americans will have no guarantee that they would even know when the government accesses their most sensitive content information be they intimate photos, financial documents, or even personal emails”.

However, the non-profit organization “recognizes that even the current version of H.R. 387 represents an improvement over today’s outdated and inadequate law,” referring to the 1986 law.

“The Email Privacy Act aligns access to data with the Constitution,” the i2Coalition Policy and Board Chair David Snead said. “The clear rules set out in the Act will help U.S. based Internet companies to compete in the global marketplace.”

Many hope that with Senator Sessions in the process of becoming Donald Trump’s Attorney General, the Email Privacy Act might pass this time with bipartisan support. However, the ACLU warned that last year’s mistakes could be repeated with pro-surveillance members adding surveillance-friendly amendments.

“Last year, this bills’ progress was derailed by Senate efforts to water down its provisions and attach amendments that would have weakened Americans’ privacy,” the ACLU said.

“We urge the Senate to not repeat past mistakes; instead it should act quickly to pass legislation that ensures that Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected in the digital age.”

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