If you’re like most people, your email is an archive of your life. It may contain invoices and receipts from online purchases, the information you’ve requested from various companies or websites, or letters from family, friends, or significant others. Once it’s outlived its usefulness, do you delete it? Do you save it in a folder? Or does it sit forgotten somewhere in the bottom of your inbox? More importantly, do you believe those emails should be private and only accessible to you – no matter how outdated they are?
According to Reuters, a recent bill passed by the House of Representatives says it agrees.
The Email Privacy Act (H.R. 387) made it through the House this week and would require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before requesting an email provider to provide copies of a user’s old emails.
It may shock you to know that currently, no warrant is necessary for any email more than one hundred eighty days old – about six months. That means the private emails between you and your spouse, your pastor, your child’s teacher — all fair game after six months.
Even if the bill becomes law, it does not, in its current language, require the government to notify users that a warrant has been served. Instead, the warrant would go to the company hosting your email, with the user never being informed that the government has been reading your emails.
The bill passed once before; last year it made its way through the House with a 419-0 vote. The bill tanked in the Senate after several lawmakers tried to add amendments that would strengthen government surveillance powers, in essence ruining the bill. Two of the changes established “emergency exceptions” which would have allowed the government to flaunt the law as long as it claimed national security emergency status. As Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) pointed out, the clauses were unnecessary because that situation was addressed elsewhere; the purpose of this provision was to expand surveillance power. The amendments were authored by then Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) – who is apparently not well-versed in the Fourth Amendment since he’s consistently fought for the government to be able to circumvent it.
The Sixth Circuit already ruled on the idea of warrants before emails; in US v. Warshak, the court held that “the Fourth Amendment demands that the government first obtain a warrant based on probable cause before accessing emails stored with cloud service provider.” The new bill would turn that ruling into law.
While the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains that the Email Privacy Act is in no way a complete fix on the issue of privacy, it’s a step in the right direction – if it passes without additional poison pill amendments.