The SCOTUS privacy ruling is accelerating lawmakers’ push for e-mail protections

Privacy-minded lawmakers are already capitalizing on an opening created yesterday by the Supreme Court when it unanimously ruled that police must have a warrant to search your cell phone.

Members of Congress who back stronger protections for e-mail and other electronic communications have begun citing the Court's landmark privacy endorsement, in an attempt to add momentum to their own privacy legislation.

The push to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a decades-old law that allows cops to read your e-mails if they've lain dormant for more than 180 days, has the support of the Justice Department and 220 cosponsors of a House bill known as the Email Privacy Act. The proposal would force police to get a warrant if they want to look at a suspect's e-mail. Today, that type of inspection requires little more than a subpoena.

"Even the Supreme Court of the United States, with an average age of 67, has moved ahead of Congress on technology issues," Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), one of the cosponsors, told the Washington Post. "The Court has put new wind in the sails of EPCA reform. This same standard [Fourth Amendment protections for cell phone contents] should apply to electronic communications."

The Email Privacy Act reached a milestone last week when the bill secured its 218th cosponsor — a "magic number" that would allow the measure to pass the House, if it were brought to the floor.

In the Senate, Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) also drew an explicit connection between the Supreme Court's ruling and ECPA reform.

"Just as the government must now obtain a warrant to look through the contents of our cell phones, I believe the same standard should apply when the government wants to look through our emails," Leahy said in a statement. "That is why I have authored bipartisan legislation to provide a much needed update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act."

The contents of a cell phone may be different from the contents of an e-mail account. But what's become available to law enforcement has generally expanded over the years with advances in technology, the Court held in its ruling Wednesday.

"Cell phones … are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy," the decision read.

At 290 cosponsors, the Email Privacy Act in the House would have the support of two-thirds of the chamber, meaning it could move to the floor under a shortcut process known as "suspension of the rules." Doing so would effectively bypass the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), is not a cosponsor.

While Goodlatte again declined to say whether Fourth Amendment protections should be applied to e-mail, he said he was "pleased" by the Supreme Court's decision on cell phone privacy and vowed to keep working to "identify ECPA reform priorities" with lawmakers and advocates.

 

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Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung · June 26