Groups push feds on email privacy

Privacy and civil liberties advocates are pushing regulators and the Obama administration to support an end to warrantless searches of people’s emails.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Heritage Action for America, Americans for Tax Reform and the Center for Democracy and Technology on Thursday called out the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for making “contradictory or misleading statements” about its work to oppose an overhaul of current law.

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The SEC has been one of the most vocal opponents of an update to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which allows law enforcement officials to get emails and other documents without a warrant once they have been stored online for more than 180 days.

Legislation to overhaul the law has gained momentum in both chambers of Congress, but the SEC has feared that an update would interfere with the way it conducts investigations. 

In a letter to the commission on Thursday, the groups said the agency was trying to confuse people about its investigation processes. They also agreed to a proposed amendment meant to satisfy SEC concerns, developed with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

That measure, they said, would make sure that "ECPA cannot be used to shield data in the cloud from ordinary discovery techniques" by allowing the SEC and other regulators to use a subpoena to obtain information held by third-party service providers during the course of an investigation 

An SEC spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Separately, advocates are also pointing the finger at the White House for its silence on a petition looking for support in overhauling the ECPA. 

The petition, created on Nov. 12, called for the White House to support the reform and “reject any special rules that would force online service providers to disclose our email without a warrant.” It has more than the 100,000 required signatures to merit an official response from the Obama administration, but none has yet been issued.

In a recent blog post, Center for Democracy and Technology strategist Mark Stanley accused the White House of staying “on the fence, refusing to support clean ECPA reform, and even refusing to respond to the citizens’ petition on its own website.”

More recent petitions have gotten a response, such as a late February request for the president to declare professional baseball’s Opening Day a national holiday.

A White House spokeswoman said that the administration was still planning to respond to the petition, and noted that response times vary.