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House passes bill requiring warrants for email searches

House passes bill requiring warrants for email searches
© Greg Nash

A bill aimed at modernizing the United States's aging law covering law enforcement access to emails and other stored files passed the House Monday night. 

The current law, known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, allows law enforcement to access any stored files without a warrant if such material is left on a third-party server for more than 180 days. But that law was passed in 1986 — three years before the invention of the internet — when computer owners did not have the same systems as modern users, such as cloud hosting, webmail and online photo galleries.

The Email Privacy Act, which passed under suspension of the rules Monday, alters the previous rule to universally require warrants for such information. The same bill cleared the House in 2016 on an overwhelming 419-0 vote, but it stalled in the Senate. 

"We can send a strong message to the American people that their privacy matters," Rep. Kevin YoderKevin Wayne YoderBottom line Bottom line Amanda Adkins wins GOP primary to challenge Rep. Sharice Davids MORE (R-Kan.) said on the House floor just before the vote. 

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Yoder introduced the bill, which was co-sponsored by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteBottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden Press: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself MORE (R-Va.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeSheila Jackson Lee tops colleagues in House floor speaking days over past decade Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion Texas New Members 2019 MORE (R-Texas), Suzan DelBeneSuzan Kay DelBeneNIH reverses Trump administration's ban on fetal tissue research NIH to make announcement on fetal tissue research policy amid Trump-era restrictions To encourage innovation, Congress should pass two bills protecting important R&D tax provision MORE (D-Wash.), Will Hurd (R-Texas), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.). 

“This is something many people in Congress and out have wanted to change for years. The time has been now for a while now,” said Sofia Cope, staff attorney for the digital rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Many online services — including those from Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Verizon — already require law enforcement to produce a warrant before they will provide data. The Department of Justice, at least during the Obama years, required a warrant for all searches — although that could change at any time under the new administration. 

“Reform is long overdue,” said Craig Albright of the trade group BSA. “The 1986 law came before the cloud, data analytics and web email.” 

“Reform would send a signal globally how the U.S. is leading in the field and sends a signal to consumers that they can trust services. Increasing trust is always helpful to business.”