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Privacy bill reportedly rewritten to allow federal agencies to access your data without a warrant (updated)

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Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy takes a 180-degree turn on consumer protection

Senator Patrick Leahy
Senator Patrick Leahy

CNET reports that an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) re-authorization bill would completley reverse the intended protections of the original bill by allowing more than 22 federal agencies, including law enforcement agencies and the FCC, to read email and access other electronic files without a search warrant. The original ECPA, passed in 1986, is the only source of current federal guidelines on data privacy in the US and is in need of an update — and the ECPA Modernization Act originally would have required that law enforcement requests for cloud data be accompanied by a warrant. But if Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has his revised bill passed, American citizens could lose an important defense against secret electronic surveillance.

American citizens could lose an important defense against secret electronic surveillance

CNET says the revised bill would allow law enforcement and other federal agencies to access cloud data like email, Facebook posts, and Twitter messages simply by issuing a subpoena — or by claiming that an "emergency" situation exists. The report says that the bill would allow state and local law enforcement groups to access data stored on private systems like university networks. Additionally, the bill would keep warrantless spying secret for longer: it reportedly would require ISPs to notify law enforcement before telling customers that they are the target of a search, and allow notification for customers whose accounts have been accessed to be postponed for up to 360 days.

Leahy reportedly revised the bill after feeling pressure from the Justice Department, which comes as no surprise — law enforcement agencies and their allies have opposed warrant requirements for electronic surveillance. We'll keep an eye out for the revised bill, which is scheduled for a vote in committee next week.

Update: Senator Leahy's official Twitter account has just called out CNET's claims with a message that says the lawmaker "is not working on a law to undermine email privacy." Without access to the revision of the bill in question, we cannot currently verify the claims, and it's possible that the revision CNET cites will now never make it to the committee vote. The author of the CNET report suggests in a tweet that Leahy may have already changed course on his revision, and that "Senate Judiciary aides were definitely not saying that yesterday."