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November 21, 2012

Senator Refutes Report He Will Support Warrantless E-mail Searches

Reports that Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) had reversed his stance on stricter e-mail privacy protection policies, are erroneous, says the Vermont Senator.

Technology news website CNet reported Nov. 20 Leahy had “dramatically reshaped” his bill protecting Americans’ e-mail privacy “in response to law enforcement concerns.”

The CNet story indicated Leahy was endorsing a bill that would permit more than 22 federal agencies to read private e-mails without a warrant. The bill would also grant more power to the FBI and the Homeland Security Department, enabling them to obtain complete access to Internet accounts without a judge’s approval or the owner’s knowledge, the article claimed.

The article also indicated Leahy had consented to weaken the bill to mollify law enforcement officials and Republicans alike.

According to a statement released by Leahy on his website, however, the CNet report is wrong.

The rumors about warrant exceptions being added to ECPA are incorrect,” the statement reads.  “Many have come forward with ideas for discussion before markup resumes on my bill to strengthen privacy protections under ECPA.  As normally happens in the legislative process, these ideas are being circulated for discussion.  One of them, having to do with a warrant exception, is one that I have not supported and do not support.

“The whole thrust of my bill is to remedy the erosion of the public’s privacy rights under the rapid advances of technology that we have seen since ECPA was first enacted thirty years ago.  In particular, my proposal would require search warrants for government access to email stored by third-party service providers – something that of course was not contemplated three decades ago.”

Leahy is touting a bill that would revise the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986. The Judiciary Committee is set to vote on the bill next week.

Current law requires police obtain only an administrative subpoena to read e-mails that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old. Police simply affirm an e-mail is pertinent to an investigation and then obtain a subpoena, issued without a judge’s approval. Internet companies are then compelled to co-operate.

Leahy’s amendment would make it necessary for the police to obtain warrants to read private e-mails, regardless of how old they are or if they have been opened.