A bill to update digital privacy laws took a major step forward this week when the Senate Judiciary Committee cleared the measure.
The proposed bill would revise the 27-year-old federal wiretap law by requiring authorities to obtain search warrants before accessing people's emails, texts, documents stored in the cloud and social media posts. Currently, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act says that the authorities only need search warrants to obtain email that's less than six months old; nearly every other type of electronic communications can be obtained with just a subpoena.
That difference is important because prosecutors can only obtain search warrants by convincing a judge that there is probable cause to believe the search will yield evidence of a crime. Subpoenas are a lot easier to obtain; prosecutors can subpoena just about any evidence that could be relevant to an investigation.
With this amendment, people clearly will have the same privacy rights to the contents of email or cloud documents as snail mail, handwritten diaries or other papers stored in desk drawers.
Even without the amendment, some judges are already ruling that people's privacy rights to their mail shouldn't depend on it's email or snail mail. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in one case that the police must obtain a search warrant before they can legally access email messages.
But in many other situations, law enforcement officials were able to obtain emails, tweets and other material without getting a search warrant -- sometimes with life-changing consequences. Most famously, former CIA Director David Petraeus resigned last year, after law enforcement officials obtained emails that revealed his affair with Paula Broadwell.
Dozens of digital rights groups, business companies and other organizations -- including Amazon, Yahoo and the Direct Marketing Association -- support the change in law. “It would provide clarity and certainty to law enforcement agencies at all levels and to American businesses developing innovative new services and competing in a global marketplace,” they said this week in a letter to the Senate.