A House committee on Wednesday approved legislation that would prevent government officials from reading emails without a warrant, a win for privacy advocates that comes as Congress hotly debates when authorities should be able to spy on private communications.
Advocates of the bill said it is needed to ensure the law is keeping up with technology when it comes to privacy protections.
Currently, the government needs a court order to obtain email less than 180 days old, but can read these messages with only a subpoena if they’re more than 180 days old. But the law that set that standard was written before Gmail, Yahoo and other web-based email services became widely used and offered users a way to store their email on “the cloud,” instead of on their personal computer’s hard drive. Under the bill approved by the House Judiciary Committee on 28 to 0 vote, authorities would need a warrant to read any email.
“These updates to the law protect Americans’ constitutional rights and provide law enforcement with the tools they need to protect public safety,” committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said in a statement.
Law enforcement officials and civil liberties advocates have been fighting for years over the line between a citizen’s right to privacy and the government’s need to access private conversations for national security reasons, an issue that grows more complicated as communications technologies change rapidly.
Presently, lawmakers are grappling with legislation to get around encryption barriers, with some proposing a standard that would require companies to furnish the government with encrypted data upon a court order – a proposal that is proving controversial.
A resolution to the debate over when a warrant is needed to read emails will likely be among the easiest privacy issues for Congress to settle.
The lack of controversy surrounding the bill suggests it could have an easy passage through both chambers with Senate leaders on the issue praising the House committee’s approval of the bill.
“These critical updates to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act will bring that law into the 21st century,” Senate Judiciary Committee Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who are pushing similar legislation in the Senate, said in a statement.
But some members of the House committee were dismayed that the bill does not require the government to notify email users when their private communications have been read.
“In the digital world no amount of due diligence necessarily tells us that the government has accessed our electronic communications,” committee ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) said, arguing the government “should have the obligation” to clue people in when someone is reading over their shoulder.
And many lawmakers are upset that location stamping of email and other communications was not addressed in this legislation.
“The idea that government can follow the citizens around wherever they go in the whole U.S.? that’s kind of 1984!” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said, referring to George Orwell’s famous novel. “Surveillance of government on the people, that’s what this committee has to fight against.”