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Nov 29, 2012 Comments Off Chuck Biscuits

Excerpted from Hillicon Valley: The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously on Thursday to require police to obtain a warrant before reading people’s emails, Facebook messages and other forms of electronic communication.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the author of the bill and chairman of the committee, said he does not expect the full Senate to vote on the measure until next year.

He called the committee vote an important step forward and said he plans to negotiate with the House to guide the bill to passage during the next Congress.

The vote is a victory for privacy advocates, who argue that current privacy rules are woefully out of date, and Leahy, who has been pushing for the change for two years.

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the vote an “important gain for privacy.”

“We believe law enforcement should use the same standard to search your inbox that they do to search your home,” he said in a statement.

Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, police only need a subpoena, issued without a judge’s approval, to read emails that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old.

When lawmakers passed ECPA more than 25 years ago, they failed to anticipate that email providers would offer massive online storage. They assumed that if a person hadn’t downloaded and deleted an email within six months, it could be considered abandoned and wouldn’t require strict privacy protections.

“I believe strongly that we need to eliminate the anachronistic distinction made in the law depending upon whether the emails are more or less than 180 days old,” Leahy said at Thursday’s meeting.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel’s ranking Republican, agreed to vote in favor of the bill, but he said it still needs more work before becoming law.

He criticized Leahy for crafting the legislation “behind closed doors” and expressed concern that the measure could impede critical police investigations.

He noted that the Obama administration has not yet taken a position on the bill, but he said Justice Department officials expressed concern to him that the measure could “negatively impact” civil cases.

Grassley offered an amendment that would allow police to avoid the warrant requirement if they are investigating crimes involving kidnapping, child pornography or violent crimes against women, including rape.

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