Senate committee votes in favor of ending warrantless email searches

By Nir Kenner on April 25, 2013, 1:30 PM

A bipartisan Senate committee convened on Thursday to discuss updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or ECPA, to be in line with the current Internet age.

The act in its present form is an update to the Federal Wiretap Act of 1968 and was written in a time before everyone had email, let alone use social networks or store files on the cloud. Despite a couple of amendments, the 1986 version of the act treats all kinds of messages differently and has a number of provisions that don’t necessarily apply to today’s world, leaving digital communications subject to very little privacy protections.

Current legislation requires a warrant for unopened emails that are less than six months old, but lets authorities access emails that have already been read as well as any older communications, with nothing but a subpoena.

Updating the bill aims to control the privacy of practically anything stored on the Internet. This includes any private family photos, personal notes or company documents uploaded to the cloud, and of course any email exchanges -- just to give you an idea of the sheer size of that, the 2012 global average of mails sent per day is 144.8 billion. The updated bill will, among other things, set clearer rules for who can gain access to your Facebook photos and posts, meaning it will have high impact even in civil cases.

Requiring law enforcement to get a search warrant for any kind of electronic content, regardless of whether they've been read or how old they are, has been the aim of many Silicon Valley companies as well as politcal parties, as many Congress members are also storing sensitive information with third-parties and they want it to be protected. Today, a Senate committee voted unanimously to advance this reform, but the bill still has a long way to go as it faces the challenge of getting passed in the full 100-member Senate next week.

At the rate the internet has matured over the last decade we often find that the law is unable to keep up the pace, it's good to see legislation trying to fill in the gap.

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