If your emails are over 180 days old, the government considers them abandoned online and up for grabs. The Email Privacy Act would change that.
If the Email Security Act becomes law, the inboxes of millions of Americans will get a security update overnight.
The bill would prohibit the government from accessing private email accounts without a warrant.
But civil rights and law enforcement advocates remain at odds over the legislation. Proponents say the bill secures privacy rights online while opponents complain it unfairly privileges digital information.
At issue is the 1986 Electronic Communications Act. Passed by Congress before most Americans went online, that law considers emails older than 180 days abandoned and makes them subject to search.
To access those emails, government agencies don’t need a warrant. They only need to ask for the messages from Internet service providers.
In the online age, Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., says, the antiquated law provides ample opportunity for abuse.
“Government agencies,” Yoder told The Daily Signal, “have enjoyed the ability to rifle through innocent Americans’ emails looking for evidence of both civil and criminal penalties.”
Cosponsored by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., the legislation would expand Fourth Amendment privacy protections for personal papers to digital files.
Polis described current laws as outdated and “trapped in a decade where dial-up Internet was standard.”
The overdue update has left Americans’ inboxes in danger, he wrote, of “being warrantlessly [sic] searched by government agencies.”
And most in the House appear to agree with that sentiment. Already, 312 representatives have signed up to cosponsor the legislation, making it the most popular bill in Congress.
But the bill repeatedly has failed to advance out of the Judiciary Committee since it’s introduction in 2012. That could change in April.
Two aides told The Daily Signal that Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., plans to “swiftly move” the bill through committee.
Two digital goliaths, Google and Yahoo, have given their stamp of approval. Some privacy groups also have deployed their bandwidth to lobby the committee for a vote.
Still, some law enforcement officials say the bill should stay offline.
They complain it would place government agents at a disadvantage by creating a new warrant requirement that would tip off criminals and “privilege” digital evidence.
Joshua Zive, general counsel for the FBI Agents Association, told The Daily Signal that the bill would require law enforcement “to show their cards” by providing extra notice.
In addition to conducting the search, Zive said, law enforcement would be required to detail the reasons for their investigation to Internet providers and the person of interest. That’s a marked departure from the current standard, he said.
“This notice requirement doesn’t have to be provided for the vast majority of car, home, and safety-deposit searches,” he said. But under the Email Privacy Act, “everything that’s electronic would get this—it’s a massive universe of things.”
If the bill becomes law and Internet companies aren’t compelled to turn over documents in a timely manor, Zive envisions a world where “electronic devices could become almost impenetrable safe houses for evidence, like nothing in the physical world.”
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