House panel advances Email Privacy Act

The act would update a 30-year-old law to require the government to use a warrant to force tech firms to turn over their customers' stored electronic communications.

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

The House Judiciary Committee unanimously advanced long-stalled email privacy legislation that would require a government warrant for technology companies to hand over their customers' electronic communications.

The bill would update a 30-year-old law that has allowed the government to subpoena electronic information older than 180 days. Backers of the new legislation say it would provide a standard for obtaining a warrant regardless of how old an email message is or whether it has been opened.

On April 13, the committee moved the Email Privacy Act in the form of a substitute amendment offered by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that is designed to address concerns that the bill would hinder law enforcement investigations.

The bill as amended would do away with a provision requiring law enforcement agencies to notify people whose communications have been targeted by a warrant.

The revisions have generated mixed reactions from privacy groups. The Electronic Frontier Foundation grudgingly supported the changes, while the American Civil Liberties Union said it hoped to reverse some of the new provisions as the bill progresses in Congress.

The original bill "dramatically expands the reach of the warrant requirement and imposes new requirements on law enforcement that could impede criminal investigations and threaten public safety," Goodlatte said in his opening statement, justifying his substitute amendment.

"And despite the number of House co-sponsors, the bill as introduced is opposed by virtually every law enforcement and prosecutorial association in the country," he added. The bill has attracted at least 314 co-sponsors -- the most, supporters say, for any bill that hasn't received a vote on the House floor.

Judiciary Committee members said they had more work to do on electronic privacy, namely through a bill put forth by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) that seeks protection for users' geolocation data.

The Center for Democracy and Technology, another digital privacy group, lauded the Email Privacy Act's advancement out of committee. "It's a huge step forward to bring the same protections we enjoy in our homes to our digital lives," said Chris Calabrese, the organization's vice president of policy, in a statement.

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