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Privacy bill would ban police from getting email and location data without a warrant

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Google Congress
Google Congress

Privacy advocates in Congress have introduced another bi-partisan bill attempting to amend decades-old legislation that has allowed police and government to search private data without a warrant. The bill, called the Online Communications and Geolocation Privacy Act, looks to fix the severely outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 so that email and location data stored by third parties like Google or AT&T receive the same warrant protections as data stored on a personal computer.

"Fourth Amendment protections don’t stop at the Internet. Americans expect Constitutional protections to extend to their online communications and location data," Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), one of the bill's co-sponsors, said in an email statement. "Establishing a warrant standard for government access to cloud and geolocation provides Americans with the privacy protections they expect, and would enable service providers to foster greater trust with their users and international trading partners." Lofgren, one of the key voices in the fight against SOPA and PIPA, has been especially vocal on the issue, and is pressing the legislation with the support of Ted Poe (R-TX) and Suzan DelBene (D-WA).

Companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook have said that they push back when police and governments demand sensitive data such as the content of emails. But currently, customer account and location data kept by third parties is routinely obtained by US law enforcement without a warrant. Google, for one example, received 8,438 user data requests between July and December of last year, only 1,896 of which came with a warrant. Major carriers also reported that law enforcement had made an unprecedented 1.3 million requests for mobile subscriber information last year.

"Technology may change, but the Constitution does not."

The new bill would require that almost all of these requests meet probable cause warrant requirements. But while extensive, the privacy protections still maintain an exception for the secretly interpreted Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which has allowed for wide surveillance dragnets that catch the private communications of Americans ever since it was amended in 2008. The bill also wouldn't stop police from obtaining data in "emergency situations," which includes dealing with "conspiratorial activities" relating to "national security" and "organized crime," and would allow police to use cellphone geolocation for the purposes of responding to 911 calls.

The batting average for this kind of privacy reform hasn't exactly been stellar. The ECPA Modernization Act, a similar bill proposed last year by Reps. Jerrold Nadler and John Conyers, died in the House without making it past its committee hearing. But the new bill's sponsors continue to insist that Congress must act to bring privacy protections into the 21st Century. "We live in a much different world than 1986," said Rep. Poe in the email statement. "It's time for Washington to modernize this outdated legislation to catch up with the times. Technology may change, but the Constitution does not."