House passes email privacy bill

For the first time, your email may soon get a layer of protection from government scrutiny.

The House of Representatives Wednesday passed the Email Privacy Act, a bill that would force government representatives wanting to have access to older email messages to get a warrant first. Right now, law enforcement and other officials need only issue a subpoena to get access to email that is older than 180 days.

Some 314 of the House’s 435 members co-sponsoring the bill, assuring its passage in the chamber. Its fate in the Senate, however, is uncertain. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will have purview over the bill in that chamber, has not said whether his committee will take it up.

The bill would fix a loophole in the 30-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Written before the widespread adoption of email and long before services like Google’s Gmail allowed consumers to store scads of messages for years on Internet-connected server computers, that law only protects the privacy of messages that that are less than six-months old.

Tech industry advocates applauded the House’s move.

“For consumers to feel safe with cloud computing, personal data stored remotely must have the same legal protection as data on their own computer,” Mark MacCarthy, senior vice president of public policy at the Software & Information Industry Association, said in a statement. “House passage of ECPA reform brings us one step closer to leveling the playing field for government access to data stored in the cloud.”

Law enforcement and national security officials have been using the ECPA loophole to force email providers to turn over older messages, often without notifying affected customers or giving them a chance to challenge the document demand.

Earlier this month, Microsoft filed suit against government, charging that it was abusing provisions within ECPA that allow the government to keep those record demands secret from affected customers. The software giant has said that the Email Privacy Act doesn’t go far enough to address its concerns, according to Reuters.

The bill is the latest in a series of efforts to improve the privacy and security of everyday Americans’ communications in the wake of the revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden of widespread, unchecked surveillance by government agencies.

Photo: File photo of a data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou, File)


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