Senator renews pledge to update digital-privacy law
Sen. Patrick Leahy says law enforcement concerns kept him from proposing that search warrants be required for police to learn the previous locations of Americans’ cell phones.
WASHINGTON–Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, said today he is optimistic that Congress would update a 1986 law, crafted in the pre-Internet era of telephone modems and the black-and-white Macintosh Plus, to protect the privacy of Americans who use the Internet and mobile phones.
The Vermont Democrat said that in his previous career as a prosecutor he had to obtain search warrants to search someone’s house. “I question whether it should be that much different if I’m going to search all your files” in electronic form, he said in a keynote speech at the Computers Freedom and Privacy conference here.
Last month, Leahy introduced legislation called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2011 (PDF) that would, in many cases, require police to obtain a search warrant to access private communications and the locations of mobile devices. But one important exception maintains the status quo: it does not require a warrant for police to peruse your historical whereabouts obtained by recording the movements of your cell phone, even if the location data are only a few hours old.
After his speech, Leahy told CNET that the exception was included to address law enforcement concerns.
✭ Grants warrantless access to Americans’ electronic correspondence to over 22 federal agencies. Only a subpoena is required, not a search warrant signed by a judge based on probable cause.
✭ Permits state and local law enforcement to warrantlessly access Americans’ correspondence stored on systems not offered “to the public,” including university networks.
✭ Authorizes any law enforcement agency to access accounts without a warrant — or subsequent court review — if they claim “emergency” situations exist.
✭ Says providers “shall notify” law enforcement in advance of any plans to tell their customers that they’ve been the target of a warrant, order, or subpoena.
✭ Delays notification of customers whose accounts have been accessed from 3 days to “10 business days.” This notification can be postponed by up to 360 days.
Leahy’s rewritten bill would allow more than 22 agencies — including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would give the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge.