House members urge reform to protect e-mail privacy

Most Americans don’t realize that their e-mail messages, chats, and documents stored on cloud servers aren’t protected by current privacy laws. There have been efforts pushed in Congress and by groups from all across the ideological spectrum to reform these laws, but there has been little to show for it.

Even before the revelations about the NSA spying scandal became public knowledge, the Justice Department and IRS claimed that they could read Americans e-mails and web-based instant messages without obtaining a warrant, as the Fourth Amendment requires. The FBI wants even more authority than statutes currently allow to access online data.

Three members of the House — Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-KS), Tom Graves (R-GA), and Jared Polis (D-CO) — made the case yesterday for the Email Privacy Act, a bipartisan measure that would protect Americans’ electronic communications and cloud data, in an editorial at Wired:

Simply put, this bipartisan legislation would affirm what most Americans already assume — and have every constitutional right to believe — that their privacy is protected from unwarranted government intrusion.

The Email Privacy Act updates legislation written in a time when server storage was limited. Back then, an email user was expected to permanently download his or her email locally from a server for reading, response, and long-term storage. So the 180 day rule made sense, because email left on a server for that long could be reasonably viewed as abandoned. But that’s not the case today with people accessing and storing years and years worth of email through third-party servers.

Fundamentally, the Email Privacy Act would ensure that the Fourth Amendment protections Americans already have for mail, phone calls, and other paper/ hard documents are extended to their soft communications too. Specifically, our legislation updates ECPA by strengthening privacy protections for electronic communications stored by third party service providers such as Amazon, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and countless other cloud services. If government agencies want to obtain any of these communications, they would first need to obtain a warrant from a judge — not their self-anointed authority.
This is a real issue and must be addressed; Congress needs to act now to update our laws through the Email Privacy Act and reign in any overreaching by government agencies. It’s ironic that we have benefitted tremendously from technological innovations and advancements such as smartphones and always-connected networks but that our laws have not kept pace with the privacy realities of the 21st century.

Back in April, the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared similar, meaningful legislation sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) that would extend Fourth Amendment protections to e-mail and online data. However, it’s unclear with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will bring it up for a vote.

The Fourth Amendment should apply to electronic communications just as it does the items and effects in your home. So, they’re right. This is a real issue and focus on it is long overdue, especially in light of the NSA scandal.

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