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Senate Committee Approves Stricter Email Privacy

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Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation to make your old emails a little more private. It also includes old Facebook posts, Google documents and anything else you might be hiding online behind a password.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Your online privacy rights are governed by an old law - an ancient law on the tech timeline. Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy was already in the Senate when it passed in the 1980s.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: When we enacted the Electronic Communication Privacy Act in 1986, email is nothing like it is today.

KASTE: That's an understatement. The law, known as ECPA, was written at a time when people still downloaded email messages from CompuServe, and it was assumed that if you left messages on the service provider, you didn't care about them. So the law says police don't need a warrant for stuff that you've left online more than six months. Three decades later, Leahy is now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he's come to see that six-month rule as anachronistic.

LEAHY: We witnessed the explosion of new technology and the expansion of the government's surveillance powers. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL RAPPING)

LEAHY: ...I might say those powers are not just a federal government but state governments.

KASTE: The Obama administration has not taken a clear position on whether to extend warrant protection to older online documents, but groups like the FBI Agents Association have warned that it would hamper criminal investigations. Members of Congress, especially Republicans, are sympathetic to that concern, but the Senate judiciary's ranking Republican, Chuck Grassley, today acknowledged the growing pressure for updated privacy laws, including a pro-warrant ruling by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY: The court all but warned Congress to take action on laws such as ECPA, and this is the first step in hearing that call.

KASTE: So despite some reservations from Grassley, the Judiciary Committee approved Leahy's legislation, extending warrant protection to older online content. Chris Calabrese of the ACLU was struck by how quickly it passed.

CHRIS CALABRESE: There was a voice vote, and everybody essentially committed to the principle that we should have a warrant for all content whether it's your email inbox or stuff in the cloud.

KASTE: Some Senators, like Chuck Grassley, say this legislation was boosted by the spectacle of the recent Petraeus email scandal, but this is also about business. Tech companies have been lobbying hard for this change. The head of the Internet Association, Michael Beckerman, says the six-month rule was giving ammunition to foreign online service companies.

MICHAEL BECKERMAN: One of the arguments that they make abroad is that, you know, when you're a United States company and you're storing your communications in the cloud with one of these companies, it's not as safe from law enforcement and from the government as it would be if it was with a company abroad. And so it puts our companies at a competitive disadvantage.

KASTE: It's important to point out that the Senate legislation restricts only what the government can do with those old emails and Facebook posts. It doesn't affect what the companies do, with one exception: The bill also contains a provision allowing users of Netflix and other video sites to opt in to sharing their movie history. That's been illegal under federal law for more than two decades. In fact, movie records are one of the few areas where federal law has restricted what the private sector can do with your private information. The bill is now headed for the Senate floor and isn't likely to come up in the House before next year. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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