HR-2471: Leahy Bill Allows Government Unlimited Online Access to Emails, Postings

Tuesday, 20 Nov 2012 04:11 PM

By Michael Mullins

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A bill initially claiming to increase email privacy for Americans now allows the federal government to have significant access to emails and other digital files without warrants.

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, a leading Democrat on the Senate Judiciary committee, originally introduced the privacy legislation, but following complaints from law enforcement he has rewritten the proposed law to include the unfettered access, according to CNET.com.

The revised bill allows 22 U.S. agencies to have civil subpoena authority for electronic communications, such as emails, Facebook wall posts, Twitter messages and Google Docs.

Among the agencies granted these powers under Leahy’s proposed law are the Federal Reserve, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission, the Postal Regulatory Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Maritime Commission, the Mine Enforcement Safety, and the Health Review Commission.

In some cases, the bill would allow for certain government agencies such as Homeland Security and the FBI to have greater powers, granting them full access to Internet accounts without first procuring a warrant from a judge.

Pitching the same bill last year prior to its rewrite, Leahy described it as legislation that “provides enhanced privacy protections for American consumers by . . . requiring that the government obtain a search warrant.”

According to a CNET source who took part in the meetings on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Justice Department had expressed opposition to the original version.

Associate Deputy Attorney General James Baker is on record warning that a law in which law enforcement agents were required to get a warrant before gaining access to an individual’s stored email could adversely impact criminal investigations.

ACLU Legislative Counsel Christopher Calabrese was critical of the revised bill, saying he felt it "undercuts" the original bill’s purpose. “We believe a warrant is the appropriate standard for any contents,” said Calabrese.

That sentiment was shared by Electronic Privacy Information Center President Marc Rotenberg.

Referring to the ongoing scandal involving former CIA director David Petraeus and the manner in which the FBI had access to emails, Rotenberg said, “even the Department of Justice should concede that there's a need for more judicial oversight,” not less.

In addition to Justice Department opposition, other law enforcement organizations that had requested Leahy revise the bill included the National Sheriffs' Association and the National District Attorneys' Association.

The bill is scheduled to be voted on next week.

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