Advocates press Obama on warrantless searches

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President Obama needs to take a stand on whether or not the government should be able to get someone’s emails without a warrant, a coalition of business and privacy advocates said this week.

In a letter to the White House sent on Monday, dozens of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, FreedomWorks, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce blamed the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for the administration’s reticence on the issue.

“You have a rare opportunity to work with Congress to pass legislation that would advance the rights of almost every American,” the groups wrote. “Please act now to support meaningful privacy reform.”

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Under terms of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), emails, texts, photos and other data stored online can be searched by law enforcement without a warrant as long as they have been in the cloud for at least 180 days. The law was written in 1986, when dial-up Internet was still cutting-edge technology, and is deeply in need of an update, advocates say.

A reform bill in the House from Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) has 205 co-sponsors, but the White House has yet to respond to a November petition to take sides on the issue. The effort months ago surpassed the 100,000 signatures needed for an official response, but the Obama administration has not responded, even while giving an answer to more recent requests that have received fewer signatures.

The White House has said that all petitions with more than 100,000 signatures would get a response, but that response times vary.

Advocates have pointed their finger at the SEC.

“Seemingly, the only major impediment to passage is an objection by administrative agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission, which would like to gut the legislation as a way to expand their investigative authorities,” they wrote.

“Such an agency carve out would be a major blow to reform efforts, allowing increased government access to our communications during the many civil investigations conducted by federal and state agencies. Support from the Administration for strong ECPA legislation without an administrative loophole would be an important step toward removing this roadblock.”

The SEC, a civil agency, relies on subpoenas, rather than warrants, to access people's emails.

Chairwoman Mary Jo White told lawmakers earlier this month that the SEC understands concerns about people’s privacy and is “very open to talking” about ways to increase protections.