Sen. Leahy introduces update to digital privacy law

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Leahy pointed to new protections aimed at geolocation data gathered by mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers. The bill requires a warrant or court order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to obtain geolocation data from a mobile device. It also requires a warrant to track a user in real time.

More controversial is the new exception to the law's nondisclosure requirements that will allow providers to "voluntarily disclose content to the government that is pertinent to addressing a cyberattack."

The American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern about "an exemption to ECPA that would allow law enforcement broad powers to gather electronic records under the guise of cybersecurity."

“Clearly, an electronic privacy law that was written the year ‘Top Gun’ was in theaters is in desperate need of an update," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.

"Technology has vastly outpaced our privacy rights, and this bill is a good first step toward rectifying that disparity. It should be common sense that the information we store and share online should have the same level of Fourth Amendment protections from government intrusion as our offline ‘papers and effects.’ "

Murphy said she hopes Congress will add protections to the bill to further strengthen ECPA, such as stricter reporting requirements that would allow the public and lawmakers to better understand how surveillance powers are being used.

Leahy's bill overlaps in many areas with several other digital privacy bills that have been introduced in recent months, most notably the bipartisan Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Leahy's bill, however, is more focused on limiting law enforcement's warrantless access to private digital communications than most of the more prominent recent efforts. The Obama administration has consistently pushed to expand the amount of authority law enforcement agents have to pursue criminals online.