- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Police and other law enforcement agencies would be forced to get a warrant if they want a look at Americans’ stored emails, under a long-stalled bill passed unanimously by a key House committee Wednesday.

The Email Privacy Act, approved by the House Judiciary Committee and now heading for a full House debate, would raise the legal hurdle for police investigators seeking access to email users’ data. Under current law, officials only need a subpoena, which requires less judicial oversight than a warrant, when they ask a technology company to hand over a customer’s emails that are more than 180 days old.

Supporters said the bill would bring modern-day protections to customers’ privacy rights by closing a loophole in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a law written well before the advent of Web-based email such as Gmail or Yahoo allowed users a way to store communications in the virtual “cloud” rather than on their computers.

An amendment offered by panel Chairman Bob Goodlatte does away with a requirement that the government serve the warrant on email users, thereby informing them of the search of their emails. Technology companies could still provide information about the warrants to customers, unless a judge grants a legal order barring any such disclosure.

“These updates to the law protect Americans’ constitutional rights and provide law enforcement with the tools they need to protect public safety,” said the Virginia Republican.

Not everyone was happy with Mr. Goodlatte’s suggested change, saying the targets of email warrants have a right to know they were being investigated.

“The government should have an obligation to provide us with some form of notice when intruding on a record of our most private conversations,” said Rep. John Conyers, Jr., Michigan Democrat. “But I understand that not everyone shares this view — and I am willing to compromise, for now, in order to advance the important reforms.”

A coalition of technology companies and other organizations supporting privacy rights also weighed in on the amended version, saying it was less than what they had hoped for, but still represented progress.

“Every single American will enjoy greater privacy protection in their personal communications with the passage of the Email Privacy Act,” said Chris Calabrese, vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. The 28-0 committee vote is “a huge step forward to bring the same protections we enjoy in our homes to our digital lives.”

Technology companies and privacy rights groups have been pushing for a legal requirement for a warrant for government access to private emails, but prior legislation stalled out in the Senate in 2013.

This time around, the bill has wide, bipartisan support in the House, with 314 co-sponsors. It is expected to get a vote before the full House by the end of April, the Hill reported Wednesday.

A similar bill in the Senate has 26 co-sponsors.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were hopeful Wednesday that the measure would be approved by both chambers.

“This bill has unprecedented support from all corners of Congress and for good reason: It ensures that the same privacy protections that apply to documents stored in our homes extend to our emails, photos, and information stored in the cloud,” said Sens. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and Mike Lee, Utah Republican, in a joint statement. “These critical updates to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act will bring that law into the 21st century.”

The Obama administration has said it favors reforming the 1986 law, but has yet to endorse specific legislation.

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