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Congress Puts Privacy Front and Center

By Erika Morphy
Mar 20, 2013 10:53 AM PT

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, on Tuesday introduced legislation to provide stronger privacy guarantees to email.

Congress Puts Privacy Front and Center

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2013 calls for the government to get a search warrant before gaining access to email or other digital communication channels such as Twitter and Facebook. An individual targeted with a search warrant would have to be notified and given a copy. The bill eliminates the "180-day" rule establishing different legal standards for the government to obtain email content depending upon the age of an email.

Leahy, who was one of the authors of the original 27-year old Electronic Communications Privacy Act, noted that online communications have changed beyond recognition since then -- hence the need for updated legislation.

Privacy laws were written in an analog era and are no longer suitable to address current privacy threats, he said.

Divergent Views

The legislation was unveiled as a hearing took place at the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where a representatives from Google and the Department of Justice testified on legal and technical issues relevant to email privacy.

In general, law enforcement officials oppose requiring a search warrant to read email in connection with civil investigations.

However, the law has not kept pace with technology, and some change is necessary, acknowledged Elana Tyrangiel, acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy.

One reason the legislation should be passed is that the various laws and statutes have become so conflicting that it is hard to apply a consistent standard, argued Richard Salgado, Google's legal director of law enforcement and information security.

Google is a member of the Digital Due Process Coalition, a group that has called for updating privacy laws.

There is a large gap between the technological assumptions made in ECPA and the reality of how the Internet works today, Salgado said. "This leaves us, in some circumstances, with complex and baffling rules that are both difficult to explain to users and difficult to apply."

A Strong Lobby

It is not just Google that is pushing for stronger legislation. Other companies have recognized the need for greater legal protection as they have come to rely on email for sensitive communications, said Orlando Scott-Cowley, messaging security and compliance expert with Mimecast.

"Organizations today are also discovering ways to tap into the power of stored data to drive a business forward, and ensuring this archived information is safe is crucial to operations," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Digital privacy issues are now much more of a concern in an age where our digital footprint can and does reveal almost everything about our lives," Scott-Cowley said.

"Where we are, who we talk to, what we talk about, our personal preferences, tastes and secrets are all easily accessible and must be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures," he maintained, "and given the correct due diligence and legal process only when required."

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