It’s no longer a surprise that the government is reading your emails. What you might not know is that it can readily read most of your email without a warrant.
Any email or social networking message you’ve opened that’s more than six months old can also be accessed by every law enforcement official in government — without needing to get a warrant. That’s because a key provision in a law almost three decades’ old allows this kind of access with a mere subpoena, which doesn’t require a judge.
That includes every email or message you opened last year, and earlier. (Anything under that six-month period still requires a warrant, however.)
It’s therefore no surprise that in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, hundreds of lawmakers are calling for change. But there’s a problem. The committee that would get the bill, dubbed the Email Privacy Act, to the House floor for a vote hasn’t yet picked it up.
The warrantless email search reform bill was originally introduced in 2013, but stalled in a bureaucratic session despite passing the various congressional committees. The proposed law aims to fix the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which is still in effect despite falling behind the curve of the digital age, and has the support from privacy groups and major technology companies alike.
Its popularity has rocketed. The House version of the bill, introduced by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS, 3rd), has more than 280 co-sponsors, more than half the entire House of Representatives. That includes big names like Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY, 4th), whose election was won on supporting privacy matters. It also includes Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI, 5th), who was a key figure in bringing the Freedom Act to a final vote.
Sensenbrenner chairs the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security where the bill was referred to. But, as reported by The National Journal, the bill remains on the parent House Judiciary Committee chairman’s “to-do list” for the time being.
Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA, 6th) reportedly told Yoder, speaking to the publication, that he may “have some potential modifications to the end product.” A committee spokesperson also told the publication that ECPA reform is a “top priority” and expects some movement soon.
Naturally, the federal agencies who rely on keeping ECPA intact are not pleased. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which regulates the banks and financial institutions, cannot issue warrants but instead issues subpoenas for emails and messages older than six-months. The agency has been accused of standing in the way of meaningful legislative reform in order to keep its somewhat limited powers.
The bill as it stands today would almost certainly pass if it headed to a House vote. A Senate version has been read twice and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), earlier this year.
The support from Congress is there, but until the two chairmen set a date, meaningful reform to warrantless searches is as good as stalled.