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Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Update To Electronic Communications Privacy Law

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, April 25 2013

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bipartisan bill to update privacy law covering U.S. citizens' electronic communications Thursday. Most notably, the bill would eliminate the current rule that enables law enforcement authorities to access anyone's stored online communications that are over 180 days old with just a subpoena. The new law would require authorities to obtain a search warrant for all communications. It would also require the government to notify individuals whose content they had accessed within 10 days.

The digital rights group the Center for Democracy and Technology said that the committee's vote is a big deal: The group has been pushing for an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 for the past several years through a project it calls the Digital Due Process Coalition, a large group that includes private sector companies, startup groups, civil liberties and political organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, ALEC and Americans for Tax Reform.

"With the vote today, Congress took a huge step toward finally updating ECPA to ensure emails and documents we store in the cloud receive the same Fourth Amendment Protections as postal mail and documents we store in desk drawers in our homes," said the digital rights group the Center for Democracy and Technology's Senior Counsel Greg Nojeim. "The bipartisan vote today shows that the time to update ECPA is now. Never before have we seen such wide support from Republicans, Democrats, tech companies of all sizes, advocates, and the public to pass this commonsense update to ensure Constitutional privacy protections for Americans' most personal communications."

Notably, however, the ECPA Amendments Act of 2013 doesn't make any changes to criminal wiretapping law or to national security investigations. The House is in the process of working on its version of the legislation.