Electronic Privacy – Expanded Protection

For years, Congress has wrestled with the idea of expanding search warrant protection on emails, regardless of how old they are. The existing 1986 law held that older online documents require only a subpoena – and the police don’t have to show a judge probable cause of criminal activity. However, in January, the Supreme Court strongly urged Congress to consider updating online privacy laws. The recent resignation of General Petraeus, in which an extramarital affair he had was revealed through e-mails obtained by the FBI, replaced the spotlight on the issue of online privacy. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to extend search warrant protection to almost all online documents, regardless of age.

According to Slate.com, a recent Google transparency report states that there were “20,938 inquiries from government entities around the world for user data in the first half of this year—a 55 percent increase in requests received during the same period in 2010. The United States by far made the most requests for user data, submitting more than one-third of the 20,938 received”. Government officials maintain that the concern with expanding privacy protection is that it impedes the effectiveness of law enforcement.

In a discussion with NPR’s Martin Kaste, FBI Agent Conrad Motyka stated that “in some cases [privacy expansion] could be subject to administrative or technical errors that could lead to disclosure to the targets of investigations, people like pornographers, and terrorists and so on, that they’re being investigated. Kaste noted that this new standard will have an affect, primarily on federal investigations, as state and local law enforcement already tend to get warrants for online content, no matter how old.

While lawmakers on both sides of the issue are looking how to resolve the issue of privacy while maintaining the needs of law enforcement agencies, there is a recognition that some action needs to be taken. “We believe the central privacy protection of the bill—a search warrant for all content—remains in place so we think it would be a substantial step forward for privacy,” – Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, to the National Journal.

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