The House unanimously voted on April 27 to refurbish a nearly three-decade old email privacy bill that advocates and tech companies like Dropbox and Google have pushed for years.
The bill, five years in the making, prevents government agencies from accessing and reading old emails of citizens without warrant. This closes off a gap in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1989 to ensure that law enforcement agents avail of a warrant prior to obliging technology companies to hand over a person's emails, videos, text messages, photos, and other electronic communications.
The Email Privacy Act (EPA) or H.R. 699 has been passed to the Senate for evaluation and will then be coursed to the President for his seal.
"Citizens should no longer be at risk of having their emails warrantlessly searched by government agencies. The Email Privacy Act will update our archaic privacy laws for the 21st century and safeguard our Fourth Amendment rights," said Rep. Jared Polis, an author of the Email Privacy Act.
"I'm proud that the House has passed this common sense bill, and I look forward to a swift passage in the Senate," he added.
Local, state, and federal police agencies currently hold the authority to check emails if the communication is at least six months old. The critics said the law had been passed even before emails were used and that it violates the constitutional protection of Americans against unreasonable searches.
Under the EPA, U.S. citizens could expect to have privacy in their email accounts including professional or personal content stored in the Internet. The authorities would also be required to show probable cause in order to oblige a service provider to release storage data or communications through a search warrant. Government agents should also preserve the legal tools required to perform criminal investigations to protect the welfare of the public.
Tech companies said the policy is valuable now that electronic communications amongst Americans are mostly stored online.
"For consumers to feel safe with cloud computing, personal data stored remotely must have the same legal protection as data on their own computer," said Mark MacCarthy, Software and Information Industry Association's public policy senior vice president.
"House passage of (the bill) brings us one step closer to leveling the playing field for government access to data stored in the cloud," he added.
Photo: Johan Larsson | Flickr