Yoder: Agencies seizing emails is ‘much worse’ than NSA spying

Greg Nash

A decades-old law on emails is more of a threat to privacy than National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance, according to a Republican lawmaker.

Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) expressed deep concern over the 1986 Electronic Privacy Communications Act (ECPA), which allows police to obtain emails without a warrant.

“It’s much worse than the debates we’re having over whether the NSA should be able to theoretically review phone call” data, Yoder said late Thursday during a Google Hangout video chat to discuss his attempts to update the law.

“This is much worse in that they’re actually reading the emails,” he said.

Yoder’s bill, the Email Privacy Act, would update the ECPA to require law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant before accessing digital communications including emails.

Currently, officials can access any email that has been stored for more than six months without a warrant.

Despite the threat it poses to their privacy, “most Americans aren’t aware of” the 1986 law, Yoder said.

“It doesn’t have the appeal that the Snowden issue has,” he said, referring to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose leaks first publicized the agency’s controversial surveillance programs.

The bill does, however, have wide support in the House, Yoder said.

He and co-sponsor Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) touted the bill’s 214 co-sponsors, just shy of half the members of the House.

“We’re very close to what we in Congress like to call a magic number,” Polis said, encouraging viewers to ask their member of Congress to support the bill.

Yoder asked viewers to “differentiate this from the NSA issue” when contacting their members of Congress.

While both issues deal with privacy, “it is different politically,” he said.

No members have come out publicly against the bill, despite pushback from federal agencies, the lawmakers said.

The Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) says it relies on warrantless email access for its investigations. The opposition from the SEC and other agencies is “going to give people in Congress a pause,” Yoder said.

“They want to be cautious," he added. "That doesn’t mean they’re opposed to” the Email Privacy Act.

Yoder and Polis  said the email privacy law needs to be updated even if agencies like the SEC say they have privacy protections around warrantless email access.

“Just because the NSA has the power doesn’t mean they’re abusing it. Just because the IRS has the power doesn’t mean they’re abusing it,” Polis said.

“But the fact that they have that power without the room for oversight from Congress” needs to be changed, he continued.

“We don’t really take their assurances,” Yoder said. “We’d rather have a federal law that prohibits them from doing it.”