House committee approves email privacy reform

If there is any good to come out of revelations about the NSA broad surveillance of Americans, it’s that there is a new push inside Congress to ensure that the Fourth Amendment is being protected.

Though the NSA is most infamous example of a government snooping of its citizens, the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service claimed that they could read Americans’ emails, instant messages, and search their cloud data without a warrant. The FBI wanted even more authority than currently allowed to conduct surveillance.

But that may soon come to an end. Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved an amendment that would require agencies that receive funding through the annual Financial Services spending bill to obtain a warrant before accessing Americans’ email information.

Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS), who offered the amendment in committee, called its adoption a step in the right direction.

“The IRS, SEC, and other government agencies have stated Americans don’t have an expectation of privacy with their email. I completely disagree,” said Yoder in a statement through his office. “By passing this amendment, the Appropriations Committee is taking a critical step towards ensuring all Americans are protected by the Fourth Amendment – their mail, documents on their desks at home, and now their private emails.”

“As the way we communicate with each other has dramatically changed over the past twenty years, our electronic communications laws have not kept pace, he added. “This amendment is a significant step, and I thank my colleagues for their support of my amendment.”

Yoder is the primary sponsor of the Email Privacy Act, which has broad bipartisan support in the House. In an editorial last month at Wired, Yoder and two of his colleagues, Reps. Tom Graves (R-GA) and Jared Polis (D-CO) explained that 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.”

Most people don’t realize that privacy protections have not been extended to electronic communications. That’s because Congress has passed on opportunities to reform the Electronic Privacy Communications Act of 1986.

With the prevelence of email, text messages, and other forms of communication brought to us by the digital age, it’s well past time for Congress to bring the Fourth Amendment online.

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