Citing cell phone tapping, Leahy calls for privacy hearings

Electronic privacy laws are "woefully outdated" and must be revised in a way that balances Americans' rights with law enforcement agencies' needs, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Friday.

As the Justice Department heads to court this week to defend its right to tap cell phone locations, Leahy noted many of the laws to be argued before that forum fail to reflect the dawning "Information Age" — a time when new technologies, like BlackBerrys, create both new opportunities to communicate and new privacy challenges.

He thus promised as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on those rules before the year's end, and he urged his fellow lawmakers to work with him on later revisions to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act — the guiding document on the matter.

"The use of cell phone locational information impacts Americans across the nation and from every walk of life," Leahy said in a statement. "The question of how best to protect these digital communications, while providing law enforcement with the tools that it needs to keep us safe, has no simple answer." 

The renewed focus on electronic privacy laws arrives just as the Justice Department launches its opening arguments in a case that could have serious implications on cell phone data and privacy.

The trial centers on an investigation last year by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF). The agency requested to tap suspects' cell phone data to determine where a likely drug deal might occur, but a federal magistrate ruled the bureau lacked sufficient evidence to merit the request.

Ultimately, the judge told the Justice Department it needed a search warrant to obtain those records, and that it had to satisfy strict tests of probable cause to gain access to information that the court deemed incredibly private. However, the Justice Department has since appealed that ruling, claiming users on cell phones have "no reasonable expectation of privacy."

That argument has set off a firestorm of criticism, as many privacy rights groups argue law enforcement agents could obtain location data without customers' consent.

Leahy did not take a side in that still-unfolding case, though his statement hints at the challenges to judges and investigators.

" ... [W]hat is clear is that our federal electronic privacy laws are woefully outdated," the senator said. "Congress must work with the Justice Department, privacy advocates and the technology industry to update and clarify the law to reflect the realities of our times."