Security

US House Approves Bill Requiring Warrant To Search Old Emails

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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Tech companies urged the Senate to back the measure tightening controls on law enforcement email searches

US legislators passed a bill on Monday intended to tighten an electronic privacy law that dates back to the 1980s by requiring investigators to obtain a warrant before seeking old emails held by Internet service providers.

The Email Privacy Act, a revision to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) adopted in 1986, has been backed by US technology companies as a way to safeguard online privacy in the face of opposition from the incoming presidential administration.

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Overseas implications

It also has implications for those outside the US who make use of US-based communications services such as those offered by Google, Microsoft or Yahoo, due to legal ambiguities over whether US companies must provide law enforcement bodies with access to emails held on servers outside the country.

Currently law-enforcement bodies such as the US Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission may demand emails from ISPs with only a subpoena, which is subject to lighter judicial oversight than a search warrant.

The bill would require warrants to request emails older than 180 days that are held on third-party servers.

It was passed unanimously by the House of Representatives for the second time, but is expected to face resistance in the Senate, where it failed to advance after Republican lawmakers tried to attach amendments that would have made exceptions for “emergency disclosures” that would have legitimised government surveillance efforts.

Surveillance fears

Electronic surveillance in the US has emerged as a public issue since 2013, when Edward Snowden disclosed large-scale government data-collection programmes.

The revelations led the EU to renegotiate its data-sharing agreement with the US over concerns that European citizens’ data was being collected.

Separately, a US court on Friday ruled that Google must comply with an FBI warrant seeking customer emails stored on a server outside the country, raising further privacy questions for European individuals and organisations using US-based communications services.

‘Constitutional flaw’

The incoming administration has indicated its support for law-enforcement efforts to broaden its access to electronic communications, appointing Jeff Sessions, one of the Republican Senators who backed surveillance loopholes for the Email Privacy Act, as attorney general.

Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, said the act would fix a “constitutional flaw” in the ECPA, which he said violates the US constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure.

“The Email Privacy Act ensures that the content of our emails are protected in the same way that the Fourth Amendment protects the items we store in our homes,” he stated.

The ACLU urged the Senate to “act quickly” to pass the legislation.

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