Senators debate update to digital privacy laws

Critics of ECPA have said the law is unclear on whether a warrant is needed to request messages from Web-based or cloud-based e-mail accounts. The Department of Justice has asserted that none is necessary.

"E-mail in someone's in-box should not be subject to a different standard than e-mail in your sent-box" said Brad Smith, a legal counsel for Microsoft at the hearing. "The reality today is that ECPA increasingly falls short of a common-sense test."

Leahy said any reforms to ECPA must preserve both individual privacy while allowing for national security concerns to be addressed. He said the policies must not prevent innovation in communications technologies and should instill confidence in American consumers.

The American Civil Liberties Union also expressed support for changes to EPCA.

"As it's currently written, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is not living up to its name. Every day, Americans conduct more and more of their lives online while their privacy protections remain stuck in the '80s," said Christopher Calabrese, ACLU legislative counsel. "As our technology advances, so must our privacy. Congress must give Americans comprehensive protection for records of their e-mails, texts and cell phone locations."