January 16, 2013, 5:01 PM — When the Senate convenes next week for the first session of the 113th session Congress, the head of the Judiciary Committee plans to renew the push to strengthen email privacy protections.
In an address at the Georgetown University Law Center, committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced that a reform of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) will be his top technology priority for the panel in the coming year.
"I'll keep pushing to update our privacy laws to address emerging technology and the Internet," Leahy said.
You Got a Warrant?
Advocates of reforming ECPA-- and there are many in the technology sector--argue that the law does not provide adequate protections for Internet users in the 21st century, and that interpretations of the statute have led to nonsensical distinctions between communications transmitted and stored in the cloud and those housed locally on a computer, among other concerns.
For instance, under ECPA, law-enforcement officials have been able to access emails stored remotely with a cloud-service provider that are more than six months old on the authority of a subpoena, rather than a warrant issued by a judge.
In November 2012, the Judiciary Committee passed legislation that Leahy authored updating ECPA to require a warrant based on probable cause to access communications from Webmail providers and ending the 180-day distinction for government access to email and other digital files stored in the cloud.
Leahy said that at that late date in the session, with holidays and the debate over the fiscal cliff looming, he did not expect the ECPA reform legislation to move further, but instead that he wanted to signal that email privacy remains one of his chief legislative priorities.
"We knew it would not go on the floor but I did want to lay down the marker as a way of telling everybody it's coming back up again," he said.