House Passes Bill Requiring Warrant to Search Email

Published: April 27, 2016 10:04 PM /


E, mail, spam.

In a surprising step in favor of privacy, the United States House of Representatives unanimously passed the Email Privacy Act, which requires law enforcement to get a search warrant to search private communications stored on servers belonging to third-party service providers. Although email is specifically mentioned in the title of the bill, the language in the bill covers any electronic communications stored on third-party servers. The bill had an astonishing 315 cosponsors, well over half the membership of the House.

The bill updates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act(ECPA), a law which was passed all the way back in 1986. Under the ECPA, communications which are stored on servers for more than 180 days are considered abandoned, and have no expectation of privacy, allowing them to be searched without getting a warrant.

Although the Email Privacy Act is considered a step in the right direction, some are still calling for more reform to the ECPA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) notes that law enforcement are still not required to inform users if their data has been searched, which it considers, "a vital safeguard ensuring users can obtain legal counsel to fight for their rights." The EFF also believes that law enforcement should be required to get a warrant to obtain geolocation data. The EFF also states that judges should suppress any communications that were obtained in violation of the law, to prevent them from being used in court.

The bill still requires approval from the Senate in order to become a law, but with such wide support in the House from both parties, its hard to imagine the Senate rejecting the bill. On the other hand, it appears that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, is still undecided as to whether to move ahead with the bill. Since the subject matter of the bill is under the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee, it likely won't get passed without his approval. A spokesperson for Grassley said he would consult with stakeholders and his committee "and decide where to go from there."

The full text of the Email Privacy Act can be found here.

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I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.