US takes another shot at stopping warrantless reading of emails

The bill was introduced Wednesday in the Senate and House of Representatives

Legislation that aims to put a stop to warrantless reading of emails got a fillip Wednesday with bills introduced both in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives to amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

The bipartisan "Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2015" will require the government to have a search warrant to obtain the content of Americans' emails and other electronic communications stored with a third-party service provider, even if it is older than 180 days.

It will also require that the government notify the person whose account was disclosed, and provide him with a copy of the search warrant and other details about the information obtained. The notice has to be provided within 10 business days of receipt of the communications for a law enforcement agency, and three business days for other agencies, unless a court order to delay notification is obtained.

The ECPA was written in 1986 and its provisions have been used by law enforcement to claim the right to access emails older than 180 days without a probable cause warrant.

The law did not anticipate the services available to people today and the low cost of online storage, and assumed that people would download mail to their computers and not keep mail on third-party servers for such a long period as beyond 180 days, according to civil rights groups.

The new legislation was submitted in the Senate by Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah and Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. Representatives Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican and Jared Polis, a Democrat from Colorado sponsored the House version of the bill. The Senate bill has six additional cosponsors, while the House version has 228 additional cosponsors.

"These reforms would protect Americans' digital privacy -- in their emails, and all the other files and photographs they store in the cloud," Leahy said in a statement Wednesday.

Bipartisan ECPA reform bills have been introduced for the third year running in the Senate and House, said digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Last year, despite the fact that bills identical to those introduced today were passed out of committee in the Senate, and had more than 260 co-sponsors in the House, neither made it to a floor vote," EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo wrote in a post on Wednesday.

Nearly identical legislation from Leahy and Lee, introduced to protect the privacy of emails, texts, social media posts and other electronic communications, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee as way back as April 2013. The issue has been live since then. In December 2013, Google, for example, urged people to sign a petition to tell the government to get a warrant to read emails.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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