WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a bill that would strengthen privacy protection for emails by requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant from a judge in most cases before gaining access to messages in individual accounts stored electronically.
The bill is not expected to make it through Congress this year and will be the subject of negotiations next year with the Republican-led House. But the Senate panel’s approval was a first step toward an overhaul of a 1986 law that governs email access and is widely seen as outdated.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who is chairman of the committee, was an architect of the 1986 law and is leading the effort to remake it. He said at the meeting Thursday that emails stored by third parties should receive the same protection as papers stored in a filing cabinet in an individual’s house.
“Like many Americans, I am concerned about the growing and unwelcome intrusions into our private lives in cyberspace,” Leahy said.“I also understand that we must update our digital privacy laws to keep pace with the rapid advances in technology.”
Leahy held a hearing about two years ago on whether and how to update the 1986 law, called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. But the effort has moved slowly, in part because some law enforcement officials have opposed restricting an investigative tool that has become increasingly used.
Under the law, authorities need to obtain a search warrant from a judge — requiring them to meet the high standard of showing that there is probable cause to believe that a subject is engaged in wrongdoing — only when they want to read emails that have not yet been opened by their recipient and that are fewer than 180 days old.
But the law gives less protection to messages that a recipient has read and left in his or her account. In some cases, officials may obtain a court order for such material merely by presenting a judge with facts suggesting the messages are relevant to an investigation; in other cases, prosecutors can issue a subpoena demanding the materials without any court involvement.
Leahy’s bill would generally require prosecutors to obtain a search warrant from a judge, under the stricter probable-cause standard, to compel a provider to turn over emails and other private documents.
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization that advocates for electronic privacy rights, hailed the committee vote as “historic.”