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Senate Judiciary Committee approves bill requiring authorities to obtain warrants for email records

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Senator Patrick Leahy
Senator Patrick Leahy

The US Senate Judiciary Committee today approved a bill that would require authorities to produce warrants illustrating probable cause before retrieving email records and other data stored on the web. Though the committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of the measure, which would amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the changes face a rocky road to becoming law as they'll need to gain passage among the full Senate and House of Representatives. Sponsoring the bill is Senator Patrick Leahy, who just last week was the fixture of a controversy that alleged lawmakers were planning to loosen such privacy restrictions for federal agencies — a rumor that the senator quickly denied.

Instead, the amendments will eliminate the "180-day rule" that permits authorities to obtain email records without a warrant so long as they've been stored online for that designated period of time. The government gains some new levels of secrecy thanks to the bill, however, as it grants them the power to delay alerting individuals whose data has been disclosed for 90-days — an interval that can be repeated if deemed appropriate. The government also maintains the right to subpoena ISPs for select customer records. Unfortunately more compromises will likely need to be made for the amendments to rally the necessary support, with law enforcement agencies continuing to push back against tighter procedures. The privacy changes were attached to measures with widespread support that will allow Netflix to publish user viewing data on Facebook after customers opt in.