A Senate committee is going to soon discuss whether or not you should be allowed to share your Netflix history on Facebook. Some people are for it, while others are against it. More importantly, Sen. Patrick Leahy has snuck an update to another outdated bill into the discussion.
Leahy wants to fix the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The bill was passed in 1986 before email was much of a concern. Now, email is relatively unguarded from prying eyes. It's not afforded the same privacy protections that physical mail is and Leahy sees that as a problem.
Leahy's update to the ECPA would force authorities to obtain warrants when requesting the emails of private citizens. You might think that such a protection should have already been put in place, but the Obama administration is actually fighting tooth and nail against such a law. The Justice Department feels that requiring warrants before tapping into electronic communications would impede criminal investigations.
So here's the deal: Would you feel safer if the authorities were able to snoop through your email without any kind of warrant? Sure, they could go after the big, bad criminals, but are the truly evil men of the world still using email to discuss strategies? Really dumb criminals might, but the real threats don't resort to communication methods that are easily tracked. It's the same argument for wanting to wiretap Skype conversations. Do you really think terrorists and the mob use Skype to give out orders?
In reality, an updated ECPA would help protect users' privacy without impeding any kind of law enforcement. A warrant is easy to get with probable cause and the bill doesn't stop law enforcement from obtaining warrants. According to CNET, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said that obtaining warrants would only limit law enforcement's ability to catch crimina, but would it really?
Both sides have valid points in this fight. There might be some really stupid criminals and terrorists who communicate via email instead of private IRC channels. Maybe Al Qaeda hasn't evolved past electronic communications from 1998. Having instant access to emails would help prevent attacks, but there needs to checks in place to prevent abuse. That's the purpose of requiring a warrant. The bill isn't trying to stop the government from obtaining emails. They're only trying to put a check into a place where there wasn't one before.
Either way, the ECPA will probably not make it through the Senate. I can see the committee tossing the amendment while they push VPPA on to a vote. We can only hope that the Senate has some sense and stands up to the Justice Department. Law enforcement needs a warrant to snoop through your mail. The same standard should apply to email.[h/t: CNET]