Senate bill could allow feds to snoop around your e-mail, online accounts

Patrick Leahy

How do you feel about the feds snooping around your e-mail account without a warrant? According to Declan McCullagh, that’s exactly what a bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) would do if passed:

A Senate proposal touted as protecting Americans’ e-mail privacy has been quietly rewritten, giving government agencies more surveillance power than they possess under current law, CNET has learned.

Patrick Leahy, the influential Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has dramatically reshaped his legislation in response to law enforcement concerns, according to three individuals who have been negotiating with Leahy’s staff over the changes. A vote on his bill, which now authorizes warrantless access to Americans’ e-mail, is scheduled for next week.

Leahy’s rewritten bill would allow more than 22 agencies — including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would give the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge.

CNET obtained a draft of the proposed amendments from one of the people involved in the negotiations with Leahy; it’s embedded at the end of this post. The document describes the changes as “Amendments intended to be proposed by Mr. Leahy.”

McCullagh, who generally does excellent work covering Internet privacy and civil liberties issues, notes that these amendments bring a different point of view compared to what Leahy has proposed in the past, which was to require a search warrant if authorities wanted to get inside of someone’s e-mail or other online accounts. The Fourth Amendment protects Americans against warrantless searches, though it has been signficiantly weakened with the so-called “war on terrorism.”

The Hill reported that Leahy’s staff denied that his amendment would do anything other than protect Americans against warrantless searches, also noting that it’s “possible that CNET was referring to a draft of the bill circulated by other lawmakers or interest groups.” Forbes also made the same case, explaining that McCullagh had a draft bill, though they don’t identify who or what organization wrote it.

Whether or not Leahy supports the draft covered by McCullagh at CNET is irrelevant. With the bill supposedly coming up for a vote next week and Congress trying to pass SOPA and PIPA earlier this year, there needs to be some sunlight and a concerted effort to defeat the bill or any substitute if it does give the federal government broad authority to access e-mail accounts without a warrant.

Our friends at FreedomWorks have launched the “Stay Out of My E-mail!” petition to tell Congress to “protect the right to privacy; not trample it.” Sign it and then start calling your Senators. We may be entering the holidays, but that’s not going to stop Congress further infringing on our liberties.

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