Leahy, Conyers promise hearings on digital privacy laws

The chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees are promising to heed the calls of tech insiders and consider updates to federal digital privacy laws.

Those long-standing rules, passed as part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), are "woefully outdated," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) stressed in a statement on Tuesday. He later promised to hold hearings on the law "in the coming months."

“As technology moves forward, it is clearly necessary for industry, as well as all Americans, to adjust and clarify the law,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) later said in a statement to reporters.


Both lawmakers' assurances arrive hours after the Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union and Center for Democracy & Technology, along with Google, Microsoft and AT&T, launched an effort to urge lawmakers to update the ECPA, which they say fails to reflect decades of advances in mobile phone and Web technology.

Specifically, the coalition is calling for new rules that would treat private communication stored online in the same way prosecutors and investigators handle similar data saved on a laptop or contained in a filing cabinet.

The groups are also asking for more consistency in how and when federal officials can monitor, collect and act on information they discover online.

"This murky legal landscape does not serve the government, customers or service providers well," according to Digital Due Process, one of the groups leading the charge.

"The current state of the law does not well serve law enforcement interests either as resources are wasted on litigation over applicable standards, and prosecutions are in jeopardy should the courts ultimately rule on the Constitutional questions," the group continued.

Those groups later told reporters during a Tuesday morning conference call that they had already spoken with the White House, Justice Department and members of Congress. They added, however, they do not expect Congress to adopt any of their changes into law this year.

Still, Leahy praised their efforts later Tuesday afternoon, and he encouraged other groups to sound off similarly in the coming weeks as he and his colleagues work "to address these important privacy and law enforcement issues."

(This post was updated at 3:58p.m.)