White House must respond to email privacy petition

A petition calling for stronger privacy protections for emails and other online communications has passed the threshold required for a White House response.

The petition on the White House website calls for an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to require police to obtain a warrant before accessing online communications. The law, passed in 1986, currently only requires that police obtain a subpoena (which does not require a judge's approval) to force Internet providers to turn over emails that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old.

The petition passed the threshold of 100,000 signatures just in time for its Dec. 12 deadline to prompt an official response.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is pushing a bill to require warrants for email searches. The Judiciary Committee approved Leahy's bill in April, but the full Senate has yet to vote on the measure.

The leaks by Edward Snowden about National Security Agency surveillance have largely overshadowed the push to update the ECPA in recent months. 

"But the NSA’s not the only problem," the authors of the petition wrote.

"We call on the Obama Administration to support ECPA reform and to reject any special rules that would force online service providers to disclose our email without a warrant."

The Justice Department has already weighed in on the issue. At a House hearing in March, Elana Tyrangiel, the acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, agreed that updating the ECPA has "considerable merit."

"We agree, for example, that there is no principled basis to treat email less than 180 days old differently than email more than 180 days old," she said "Similarly, it makes sense that the statute not accord lesser protection to opened emails than it gives to emails that are unopened."

But she urged lawmakers to exempt civil regulatory investigations from the warrant requirement. She explained that regulators investigate conduct that is unlawful, but not necessarily criminal. She argued that because regulators often do not have access to the warrant power, the requirement would impede critical government investigations.