A Senate proposal originally drafted to protect American’s email privacy has taken a dramatic detour. In fact, it’s turning around and heading in the opposite direction.
The original bill, backed by Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee Patrick Leahy, required that government agencies obtain search warrants before accessing email accounts. According to CNET’s Declan McCullagh, a new version of the bill does away with all the middle men and actually gives government agencies warrantless access to Americans’ email accounts. The bill is up for vote next Thursday (November 29.)
Leahy’s revision would give more than 22 government agencies access to email, Google Docs files, Facebook posts, even Twitter direct messages, without probable cause. In some scenarios, the bill also gives the FBI and Homeland Security full access to Internet accounts without the approval of the owner or a judge.
Law enforcement groups, such as the National District Attorney’s Association, and Justice Department officials objected to Leahy’s original bill. Detractors worried that requiring a warrant to access email accounts could impede criminal investigations.
Citing ongoing legislature discussions, an aide to the Senate Judiciary committee declined CNET a comment on the matter. In light of former CIA director David Petraeus’ email scandal, Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, did tell CNET that “even the Department of Justice should concede that there’s a need for more judicial oversight,” not less.
Agencies granted this warrantless surveillance power include any executive department, military department, government corporation, government-controlled corporation or other establishment in the executive branch of the government. Also included is a long list of independent regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Reserve System, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission, just to name a few.
Such a hodgepodge list has rankled Markham Erickson, a lawyer in Washington D.C. who has kept a close eye on the legislation. Speaking not for his corporate clients, Erickson aired his concerns to CNET:
There is no good legal reason why federal regulatory agencies such as the [National Labor Relations Board], [Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission], [Securities and Exchange Commission] or FTC need to access customer information service providers with a mere subpoena. If those agencies feel they do not have the tools to do their jobs adequately, they should work with the appropriate authorizing committees to explore solutions. The Senate Judiciary committee is really not in a position to adequately make those determinations.
In many cases, police will still be required to obtain search warrants — except when an “emergency” situation is declared — but the new bill is in stark contrast to the original draft. Tech companies are likely to furrow their brow over these new proposals. What about you?