By: Erin Kelly, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Congress is moving to protect Americans' emails from government snooping while also urging federal agents to keep closer tabs on social media to check for possible terrorist communication.
The two separate efforts underscore the pressure that lawmakers feel to simultaneously boost Americans' electronic privacy and stop terrorist groups from recruiting followers or plotting an attack online.
In March, a key House panel is set to take a big step toward updating a 30-year-old electronic privacy law that allows government agents to read Americans' emails without a warrant if the emails are at least six months old. The 1986
"As a result of Congress’s failure to keep pace with technology, every American is at risk of having their emails warrantlessly searched by government agencies," said Rep.
"This is a very important bill, and it should easily pass the House," said Mark Jaycox of the
While civil liberties advocates are encouraged by the House push to protect Americans' emails, they are keeping a close eye on separate efforts by lawmakers to increase surveillance of social media.
Earlier this month, the
The Islamic State has been especially effective at using Twitter to recruit followers in the U.S., according to the FBI.
"ISIS is growing, and the threat of homegrown terrorism is real," said
While the bill does not tell the Obama administration how to fight the digital war, separate legislation introduced late last year in the Senate would require U.S. tech companies to report any online terrorist activity to the government.
"That information can be the key to identifying and stopping terrorist recruitment or a terrorist attack, but we need help from technology companies," said
Feinstein said the bill doesn't force companies to take any additional action to discover terrorist activity, but requires them to report any activity they come across to law enforcement officials.
Americans do not expect to keep federal agents from reading their social media posts to the same degree that they expect the government to stay out of their private email, said Jaycox, who handles privacy and civil liberties issues for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
However, he said there are constitutional problems with relying on tech companies to decide what is or isn't "terrorist speech" as they determine what information to turn over to law enforcement agencies.
"It raises First Amendment free speech issues," Jaycox said. "The idea that tech companies can create some type of magical algorithm to detect terrorist speech by searching for certain words or phrases is unrealistic. If someone uses the word ISIS in a tweet, are they a terrorist?"