Senate Committee Passes Bill Restricting Wireless E-mail Searches

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Senate Committee Passes Bill Restricting Wireless E-mail Searches

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill sponsored by Senators Jim Leahy and Mike Lee that would require law enforcement and government to obtain warrants before searching electronic communications.

A Senate committee Thursday signed off on a bill that would make it harder for federal agents to conduct warrantless surveillance of e-mail and other forms of electronic communication, including Facebook posts and other online expressions.

The bill – S. 607 – amends the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) enacted in 1986. Cosponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the measure would make critical changes to the authority granted by the ECPA to government agents to bypass warrant requirements before snooping through a person’s private electronic correspondence.

After seeing their bill garner bipartisan support from the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy and Lee praised their colleagues for their action.

“All Americans — regardless of political party affiliation or ideology — care about their privacy rights,” said Leahy, an author of the original 1986 ECPA law. “That is why Senator Lee and I are joined in this effort by a broad coalition of more than 100 privacy, civil liberties, civil rights and tech industry leaders from across the political spectrum in supporting the privacy updates contained in this bill.”

"Reforming ECPA to protect legitimate privacy rights is not a partisan issue," said Senator Lee. "I'm pleased to be working closely with Chairman Leahy to help ensure that all Americans can be confident that the government may not access their email or other electronic communications without a warrant."

The Leahy-Lee amendments would require government agents to obtain a search warrant before rifling through the electronic communications of Americans that are stored by a third-party service provider (read: Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, etc.).

The bill shores up this aspect of privacy and the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” by stripping ECPA of the “180-day rule.” This provision in the 1986 version of the law (the version currently in force) set up separate rules for giving government agents access to e-mail and other electronic communication stored for longer than 180 days.

Section 3(b) of the Leahy-Lee bill would mandate that:

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