While recent events are still fresh in the memory and lives of those in the US, a new but related matter might rock the boat even more. Especially for those in the tech who are still in the middle of a tussle with the government. The House of Representatives has just voted to pass a bill that will require search warrants even for old emails. But while considered a win for privacy advocates, the bill could still be blocked in the Senate, just as it was last year.
At the heart of the matter is a proposed law that will require authorities to obtain a search warrant first before seeking to obtain even old emails. The status quo, based on the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act or ECPA, simply required a subpoena for government agencies and law enforcement to get service providers to comply. A search warrant, however, is relatively harder to get as it requires more judicial oversight than a subpoena.
Privacy advocates as well as service providers like Google consider that law to be antiquated. It came into effect at a time when email was more of a luxury available only to a limited few. Despite the prevalence of instant messaging and SMS today, email still remains the de facto medium of electronic communication, which is why it is of great interest to authorities.
Proponents of the bill that would limit authorities’ ability to obtain old email argue that emails, new or old, deserve the protection of the Fourth Amendment. Those in the House apparently agree, demonstrated by a voice vote, but the Senate might have other agendas. The bill was already passed in the House last year but was killed on the Senate floor. It is expected to encounter just as much, perhaps even greater, opposition this year.