Senate committee approves privacy protections for cloud, email

The legislation would require law enforcement agencies to get court warrants to search stored electronic communications

A U.S. Senate committee has voted to approve legislation that would give the public new privacy protections from government searches of email and documents stored in the cloud.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that would require law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered warrants to search digital files stored in the cloud for longer than 180 days. Under current law, police need only an administrative subpoena to search email and other electronic records stored outside a suspect's computer for longer than 180 days.

The ECPA amendment was attached to House Resolution 2471, a bill related to consumer consent to video service providers. The bill is unlikely to pass through the House of Representatives this year, but sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the committee, said Thursday's vote lays the foundation for a bill to pass through Congress in 2013 or 2014.

Leahy pushed for the additional protections for email and cloud services, contrary to a news report last week saying he had rewritten the amendment to allow more surveillance by government agencies. Leahy has consistently called for greater legal protections for cloud services in recent years.

Stored email should enjoy the same legal protections as email stored on a suspect's computer or paper files stored in a suspect's desk, Leahy and other supporters of the amendment argued. ECPA has allowed lesser protection for communications stored outside a suspect's computer or home, with supporters of the difference arguing that suspects have less privacy concerns about data stored with outside vendors.

"Like many Americans, I'm concerned about the growing and unwelcome intrusions into our private lives in cyberspace, intrusions we would not allow in the physical world," Leahy said during a hearing to amend the bill. U.S. residents would expect law enforcement agencies to get a search warrant "if the government wanted to come into our house and look at the files we have on paper."

A group of technology vendors and digital rights groups have pushed for changes to ECPA since early 2010. The current rules discourage people from using U.S. cloud services, said members of the Digital Due Process Coalition.

Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said he was concerned the Leahy amendment would hamper law enforcement and insider stock trading investigations. Grassley offered an amendment that would have allowed law enforcement agencies to get email files with simple subpoenas in child abduction, child pornography and some other cases, but majority Democrats on the committee voted down his amendment, saying Leahy's bill already allows law enforcement quick access to electronic files in cases where victims lives are in danger.

Grassley said he hopes law enforcement concerns about the bill can be addressed in upcoming negotiations.

The committee's vote for the bill won support from BSA, a software trade group, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group. The American Civil Liberties Union called the vote an "important gain for privacy."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags instant messagingInternet-based applications and servicesChuck GrassleyU.S. Senate Judiciary CommitteelegislationgovernmentinternetPatrick LeahyprivacyAmerican Civil Liberties UnionBSAsecurityMailCenter for Democracy and Technology

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Grant Gross

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place