Privacy groups begrudgingly OK email privacy bill changes

Privacy and civil liberties groups on Tuesday begrudgingly announced they were OK with changes to an email privacy bill heading for a House Judiciary Committee vote. 

Ahead of Wednesday's vote, the widely supported bill went through a series of small changes, which the American Civil Liberties Union called an unnecessary sacrifice to advance the bill, which has been stalled for years. 

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Nonetheless, the group signed on. 

“While we recognize that the amended version of the bill is a step forward from current law, we are disappointed by changes that eliminate critical privacy protections," ACLU legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani said, vowing to try and undo the changes as the proposal advances. 

The Email Privacy Act, which has more than 300 co-sponsors, would ensure that the government and law enforcement obtain a warrant before forcing technology companies to hand over their customers' old emails. 

To do that, the bill would close off an outdated loophole in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that allows those electronic communications to be obtained with a subpoena if they are more than 180-days old. That subpoena power has not been used in years after a 2010 court ruling cast doubt on the constitutionality of the demands. 

The original bill would have also required the government to inform the targets of ECPA warrants when their emails are handed over. 

That provision was scrapped by Chairman Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteGoodlatte: Administration undercut law, Congress by setting refugee cap Virginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence Republicans mull new punishments for dissident lawmakers MORE (R-Va.) in his substitute. But technology companies themselves will still be able to inform customers when they hand over the information to law enforcement.  

"This is a dangerous shift in current law; however, we think it’s acceptable given that companies may continue to provide notice to users of government requests," the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog endorsing the overall bill. 

The group noted that a number of major technology companies have already committed to that kind of disclosure, but others have not. According to an EFF report from 2015, those companies that do not tell users about government demands include Amazon, AT&T, Comcast, Google, Slack, Snapchat, Twitter, Verizon and WhatsApp.