Privacy Activists Cheer Passage of Email Privacy Act, Brace for Senate Battle

In a vote of 419-0, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Email Privacy Act on Wednesday that would require the government to obtain a warrant in order to access digital communications stored in the cloud.

In a vote of 419-0 on Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Email Privacy Act that would require the government to obtain a warrant in order to access digital communications stored in the cloud. Privacy advocates cheered the victory and said it was a win for U.S. citizens and companies.

The Email Privacy Act (H.R. 699), which reforms the decade-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act, requires a warrant by the government before it can access email or other stored digital media that is more than 180 days old. Currently, federal agencies only need a subpoena to seek such data from a service provider.

The bill now faces Senate approval, which experts say may not be as easy as the House passage. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee told The Washington Times Thursday, “Members of this committee on both sides of the aisle have expressed concerns about the details of this reform, and whether it’s balanced to reflect issues raised by law enforcement.”

The win comes just as the debate regarding government access to private digital communications has piqued among privacy advocates, businesses and consumers.

Earlier this month, Microsoft filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for the right to tell its customers when a federal agency is looking at their emails. Also in April, tech firms and privacy advocates banded together to voice opposition to a draft bill, Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016 – a bill that would force companies to decrypt messages and unlock devices if ordered to do so by government court order. Messaging apps WhatsApp and Viber also stoked the debate adding end-to-end encryption to communications over their platforms. Then, of course, there is Apple and its battle with the government’s demands to help it crack its own encryption in order to break into an iPhone.

“H.R. 699 is a win for user privacy,” wrote Sophia Cope staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a blog post Thursday. “The government should also be required to obtain a warrant when demanding a person’s geolocation data. And if the government does obtain any communications data in violation of the law, courts should have the ability to suppress that evidence in criminal prosecutions,” she wrote.

Chris Calabrese, VP of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, supports the passage of H.R. 699 and said laws needed to be changed in order to keep pace with technology. The same constitutional standard that protects the information we store in our homes now needs to apply to the cloud, he said. “With the rise of cloud computing, our emails, photos and texts are stored with third parties,” he said. That information must be protected by a search warrant, he said,

“It is that rare bill that garners support from the full range of the political spectrum, and that can become law even in an election year,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Senator Mike Lee, R-Utah, in a joint statement issued Wednesday.

Still some, such as the EFF, say the bill has room for improvement. “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,” wrote Cope.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Grassley, who holds who holds jurisdiction over the legislation, was mum when asked if the bill would move forward this election year. Senators Leahy and Lee, both authors of the bill, said they hoped for speedy passage and quick consideration of the bill.

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