US lawmakers introduce two bills to protect email privacy

Both bills would require law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered warrants for older stored communications

A long-standing effort to extend privacy protections to email and other data in the cloud got new life Thursday when U.S. lawmakers introduced not one, but two bills to reform the country's electronic privacy laws.

Both the Law Enforcement Access to Data Stored Abroad Act, called the LEADS Act, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Amendments Act would require law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered warrants to search data that's been stored on Web-based or cloud-based services for more than 180 days.

Under the 29-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act [ECPA], law enforcement agencies do not need a court-ordered warrant to search unopened e-mail stored with a vendor for longer than 180 days, although they do need court approval to access unopened e-mail less than 180 days old.

Several tech vendors and digital rights groups have been pushing for ECPA reform since early 2010, but Congress has failed to act. In an era of cloud computing, it doesn't make sense for data stored past six months to have fewer legal protections than other personal data, backers of ECPA reform say.

The LEADS Act was introduced by Senators Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, and Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican. The legislation is similar to a bill of the same name that Hatch and other senators introduced last year.

Sponsors of the ECPA Amendments Act in the Senate include Senators Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, and Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. A House of Representatives version of the same bill is sponsored by Representatives Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican, and Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat.

"In 2015, it is absurd that the government is free to rifle through Americans' emails that are older than six months," Wyden said in a statement. "Because of this arcane law, as technology advances, Americans' civil liberties are eroding."

Among the companies voicing support for the LEADS Act were Microsoft and Verizon Communications. The LEADS Act offers "common-sense reforms" to ECPA, Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, wrote in a blog post. "The LEADS Act is a real solution to a real problem."

The bill would also limit the overseas reach of search warrants, Smith noted. During the past year, Microsoft has been fighting a New York warrant for emails stored in the company's facility in Dublin.

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 email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags U.S. SenateDean HellerJared PolisKevin YoderOrrin Hatchcloud computinglegislationinternetprivacyMicrosoftRon WydensecurityBrad SmithgovernmentChris CoonsPatrick Leahy

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