US House passes bill to issue warrants for emails, data

In an effort to update an old email privacy law, the House has voted to move the bill to the Senate.

By Bronte Price, PoliticKING

Legislation requiring authorities to obtain a court warrant to acquire e-mails and data stored in the cloud was unanimously approved by the US House on Wednesday.

The Email Privacy Act is a modification to a 1986 e-mail privacy law which allows authorities to access e-mail and data from service providers without a warrant if the message or data is at least 180 days old. Technology companies and privacy advocates say that because the statute was written before the rise of the Internet, the 1986 law is outdated. Currently, agencies like the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission only need a subpoena in order to obtain data from a service provider. More than 300 House members co-sponsored the legislation approved on Wednesday.

The bill states that warrants are required for all online documents and other private electronic documents like photos. Warrants will be required just as they are currently needed for physical papers and objects.

Sophia Pope, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that privacy advocates are being cautiously optimistic about the bill.

"While we applaud the passage of H.R. 699, the bill isn’t perfect. In particular, the Email Privacy Act doesn’t require the government to notify users when it seeks their online data from service providers, a vital safeguard ensuring users can obtain legal counsel to fight for their rights," she said.

The bill is now headed to the Senate, where it is unclear whether or not it will pass. President Obama also needs to sign the bill, but will likely be out of office by the time the bill gets that far.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) has not said whether or not he intends to move the measure forward during an election year.

He has said that he will consult with stakeholders and his committee "and decide where to go from there," a spokeswoman told reporters.

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