House Judiciary to tackle email privacy, spy rules

Shutterstock image (by Bruce Rolff): eyes in a binary tunnel. 

Moving the Email Privacy Act, renewing Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, updating copyright laws and addressing data stored overseas are some of the items on the House Judiciary Committee's newly announced innovation and competitiveness agenda.

At a Capitol Hill press conference, Committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) touted the agenda as advancing pro-growth policies for America's tech sector by "reducing any unnecessary burdens it faces."

The top item on the list is one the House already passed back in February 2017: the Email Privacy Act. It was the second time that the House passed the legislation without opposition.

The act irons out the differences in law, going back 25 years, that currently govern law enforcement access to email and other communications. Current law sets different standards for recent emails stored on a user's computer and older emails stored remotely on the server side.

The act has repeatedly stalled in the Senate. Back in February, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the bill faced a tough road.

"Everyone agrees [the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986] needs to be updated. But there was broad, bipartisan interest on our committee to modernize the law to also address law enforcement and national security equities in ways the House bill omits," he said.

The future of ECPA updates under the Trump administration is in doubt – one of the fiercest opponents of updating the rules was Jeff Sessions, now attorney general.

The committee will also explore laws governing whether or not law enforcement officials can access the data of American suspects of cyber crime if that data is outside the U.S.

The renewal of FISA Section 702 could be another contentious item. In March, some House Republicans warned the heads of the National Security Agency and the FBI that unless they found and prosecuted those responsible for allegedly unmasking and leaking information about Trump associates who were swept up in foreign surveillance, they might not be able to renew 702 before it sunsets at the end of 2017.

The NSA recently took a significant step to allay some of those concerns by announcing it would no longer collect "upstream" electronic communications that are "about" foreign targets rather than "two or from" those targets. That would reduce the number of Americans who are captured inadvertently in foreign surveillance, but it might not be enough to appease the statute's toughest critics.

Another thorny topic on the committee's docket is encryption. Goodlatte said the committee hopes to build on the work of the bipartisan encryption working group.

"We must ensure that we protect and preserve the benefits of strong encryption -- including the protection of Americans' privacy and information security -- while also ensuring law enforcement has the tools needed to keep us safe and prevent crime," he said.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is a former FCW staff writer who focused on defense, cybersecurity and intelligence.


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