Warrants

House Passes Bill Requiring Search Warrants to Access Your Old Emails

Current federal law treats online communications stored after 180 days as abandoned.

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Email
Credit: ePublicist / photo on flickr

The House voted unanimously, 419-0, this afternoon to update old tech federal technology laws to provide better privacy protections for Americans' old emails from unwarranted government searches.

The Email Privacy Act, HB 699, updates the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act to correct a significant gap in Fourth Amendment protections of citizens' communications. The old law determined that emails or stored communications held by a third-party provider (like Google) were no longer subject to warrants in order for authorities to access their contents after 180 days. Law enforcement or investigatory agencies could just get subpoenas and go directly to the third-party storage systems to demand copies of the contents.

The legislation that passed today closes that loophole and requires actual warrants, but it's still not going to be quite the same as when a law enforcement agency runs out to get a warrant to search your house. HB 699 gives law enforcement agencies 10 days (and other government entities three days) to inform the person whose e-mails or communications they had collected that they had done so. And authorities may request even further delays. So, when the police come and search your house, you know it right then. When they serve a warrant to a third-party email service, you might not find out for a few days. This was a carve-out in response to law enforcement and government agency fears that suspects would delete emails when the warrant was administered. It does also permit authorities, for a limited time, to gag the third-party providers from telling anybody (like the suspect) about the warrant.

(CORRECTION: Apparently the LEO groups got even more of their way in negotiations. The mandate that the authorities inform the subjects who have had their emails searched was actually excised from the bill before this vote. My mistake. The text remained in the formal summary of the legislation but not in the actual text. It leaves third party-providers with control over whether to inform subjects of searches, unless they've been gagged. Apologies for any confusion)

Exceptions aside, it's certainly a much better system than we have now. The House version was sponsored by Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and had many, many bipartisan sponsors. Now it's going to head over to the Senate, where there might be a tougher fight, but we'll have to see. The Senate version of the privacy bill has bipartisan co-sponsors as well, Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Mike Lee (R-Utah). It has additional co-sponsors on the Senate side across the political spectrum from John Cornyn (R-Texas) to Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Sen. Ted Cruz signed on as a co-sponsor last year. But the Senate version of the bill doesn't have the overwhelming number of co-sponsors at this point that the House version did (314!) when it passed today. Some tech privacy activists are worried that the Senate will drag its feet in order to please critics within federal agencies and stop reforms from passing. Read more about these concerns here.

NEXT: Most Police Forces Still Refuse Transparency When it Comes to Use-of-Force Statistics

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  1. When they serve a warrant to a third-party email service, you might not find out for a few days.

    Because serving a warrant would tip you off to, what? Flush those old emails down the toilet? They don’t want to give you the chance to preemptively lawyer up.

  2. Unless you’re Hillary, then you just wipe it, with a cloth. And then mysteriously, no one can find the backups, and no one notices that this is in violation of federal law.

    1. I gotta get me one of those cloths.

      1. No, just declare that you are a presidential candidate.

  3. Correction! The mandated notification was excised from the final bill in committee, but it remains on the official text summary. I missed this change. This means it’s up to third-party providers to inform customers about warrant searches, unless they’ve been gagged not to.

  4. The text remained in the formal summary of the legislation but not in the actual text.

    What those of us in the real world call “fraud”.

  5. I presume I get to go through my emails and delete anything I don’t believe is pertinent to their warrant, right?

  6. At least a judge has to sign off on it now, which is a step in the right direction. Still, obviously, less than ideal. The gag order part is the most concerning. If they searched your house or your car, they would have to serve you with a warrant. If you had a FedEx box or something, they would have to notify you too, wouldn’t they?

  7. are you saying the do nothing Republicans are doing something and they are doing it with democrats. I wonder if lib media will take note without being snarky about it.

    1. No, of course not.

  8. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, unless those papers and effects have been stored privately for 180 days or more?

    1. I could have sworn there wasn’t a 6-month-old-papers loophole in the 4th Amendment when I studied it in school….

  9. I want to know who in the fuck voted zero. Asshole.

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