A bipartisan Senate committee just voted unanimously to advance a privacy reform bill that would tighten the restrictions on how the government and law enforcement can access user email and other electronic messages in investigations. Called the ECPA Amendments Act, the bill would modify the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to require government and law enforcement agencies to get a warrant for all types of electronic communications regardless of whether or not they had been read by the user, and no matter how old they are.

Requires a warrant for all electronic communications, regardless of age or read status

Previously, the ECPA allowed access to user communications without a warrant if they had been marked "read," or opened, or if they were older than 180 days (about six months), at which point the government considered them abandoned. In both of those cases, only a less-strict subpoena was required to read user email as part of an investigation. Cloud-based companies including Google and web user advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have long called for the law to be changed given that many people now store most of their communication online, including older communication, saying that it made little sense to treat this information differently based on date or "read" status.

The bill still has a long way to go toward passage: the full 100-member Senate needs to vote in favor of it first, then the House needs to introduce their own identical or similar bill and pass that. Then, the final bill must go to the president's desk for signing. Still, today's move is big victory for ECPA backers and supporters, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who first introduced the bill a year ago only to see it get advanced by the committee, then left behind as the Senate moved on with more pressing topics — like amending video privacy laws to allow Netflix to legally launch full social integration earlier this year. We'll see if the ECPA Amendments Act gets further this year, now that the calls from advocates and companies to reform email privacy law are intensifying.