Senate quietly approves warrantless email searches

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Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The Fourth Amendment outlawing unreasonable searches and seizures suffered a blow at the hands of the U.S. Senate this week.

On Nov. 29, a Senate panel approved a bill requiring law enforcement to obtain a search warrant prior to snooping into anyone’s private emails. Computer, Internet and social media executives applauded the move, as did constitutional scholars and the American Civil Liberties Union.

It marked the first step in an effort to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a law so convoluted that even members of the judiciary have trouble following it.

Prior to the committee vote, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, promised to simplify the language and make warrantless searches of private email accounts a thing of the past.

“Today, this law is significantly outdated and outpaced by rapid changes in technology and the changing mission of our law enforcement agencies after Sept. 11,” Leahy told a group of industry leaders, according to Declan McCullagh of CNET News. “At a time in our history when American consumers and businesses face threats to privacy like no time before, we must renew” America’s commitment to privacy.

However, the bill as approved in committee had a very limited lifespan — less than one month.

This week, the legislation’s language requiring law enforcement officials to show probable cause to obtain a search warrant as a requirement before viewing private emails was quietly removed before being sent to the White House.

In another move, Congress amended a similar law — the Video Privacy Protection Act — to allow companies like Netflix to obtain a blanket consent from consumers before sharing information with their Facebook friends about what movies or TV shows they’re watching.

The language’s removal means that government can continue its practice of viewing private emails stored by third parties — such as Internet service providers — after 180 days without first obtaining a warrant. The American Civil Liberties Union was incensed.

“If Netflix is going to get an update to the privacy law, we think the American people should get an update to the privacy law,” the ACLU’s Chris Calabrese told Wired magazine.

Read more at BuzzFeed Politics.

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