Patrick Leahy

Senate committee passes ECPA bill to increase email privacy, full floor vote next

by Carl Franzen,  |  published on April 26, 2013

A bipartisan Senate committee just voted unanimously to advance a privacy reform bill that would tighten the restrictions on how the government and law enforcement can access user email and other electronic messages in investigations. Called the ECPA Amendments Act, the bill would modify the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to require government and law enforcement agencies to get a warrant for all types of electronic communications regardless of whether or not they had been read by the user, and no matter how old they are.

Previously, the ECPA allowed access to user communications without a warrant if they had been marked “read,” or opened, or if they were older than 180 days (about six months), at which point the government considered them abandoned. In both of those cases, only a less-strict subpoena was required to read user email as part of an investigation. Cloud-based companies including Google and web user advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have long called for the law to be changed given that many people now store most of their communication online, including older communication, saying that it made little sense to treat this information differently based on date or “read” status.

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