Bill Intended to Secure Email Privacy Now Does the Exact Opposite (Updated: Leahy Responds)

Sen. Patrick Leahy folds to the Justice Department


In 2011, Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act, which would require authorities and law enforcement to get a search warrant to access private electronic communications.

The bill is now finally up for possible vote next week. In the year since the bill was first introduced, there have been some significant revisions. Declan McCullagh at CNet explains:

Leahy's rewritten bill would allow more than 22 agencies—including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission—to access Americans' e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would give the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge.

It's an abrupt departure from Leahy's earlier approach, which required police to obtain a search warrant backed by probable cause before they could read the contents of e-mail or other communications. The Vermont Democrat boasted last year that his bill "provides enhanced privacy protections for American consumers by… requiring that the government obtain a search warrant."

So apparently the Department of Justice objected to having to take the time to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Fourth Amendment and claimed it could have an "adverse impact" on investigations. Rather than responding, "Yes, that's the point," Leahy capitulated.

Among the others agencies that could potentially get access to your private emails and documents are the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Maritime Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as the Federal Reserve.  

Update: Via Twitter, Leahy's office tweets: "Ideas from many sources always circulate b4 a markup 4 disc., but Sen.Leahy does NOT support such an exception for #ECPA search warrants." The feed reiterates Leahy's intent to require search warrants.