In this June 28, 2010, file photo, Senate Judiciary Com […]
(MintPress) – On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced The Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act, a bill that would require the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other intelligence agencies to get a warrant before viewing citizens’ emails.
If passed, the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act, would reform a 1986 law that allows law enforcement to view emails and other electronic communications with just a subpoena.
The bill is sponsored by Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), all members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rights groups have praised the proposal as a necessary check on police power. Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office commented, saying,
“Law enforcement should need the same standard to search your inbox or track your every move that they would to search your house,” he said. “New technologies can be incredibly powerful but also incredibly invasive. They need strong controls.”
The proposal would also require police to get a warrant when obtaining cell phone location data. There are 320 million cell phones in the U.S. providing an abundance of information about the movement of Americans.
Growing congressional support for citizens’ rights
This continues previous attempts by Congress to check police surveillance power. In November, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).
The proposal offered a similar set of legislative reforms ending warrantless surveillance of emails in the United States. If enacted as law by Congress, the ECPA would be an important protection for millions of Internet users who would be able to communicate freely without fear of government monitoring.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), one of the main sponsors of the bill, warned of a “growing and unwelcome intrusion into our private life in cyberspace.” Leahy originally introduced the ECPA in November 2012 and has vowed to continue lobbying for its passage when it goes to vote in Congress.
Civil liberties advocates claim that current laws allowing for virtually unrestricted surveillance of electronic correspondence violates constitutionally-protected rights. The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
Because of judicial precedent and current laws, old email accounts of those who use email providers like Google, Yahoo, AOL or Microsoft can be subject to warrantless searches if correspondence is less than 180 days old.
The new proposal amends 1986 legislation, passed long before the Internet became a commonly used means of communication. Currently, 22 federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can access citizen email and social media without warrants. State and local law enforcement also have virtually unrestricted access to Americans’ correspondence stored on systems not offered “to the public,” such as university networks.
Senator Leahy’s proposal would apply to correspondence among people in the United States. Any emails sent abroad would still be subject to surveillance by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and National Security Agency (NSA), protected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The sharp increase in government surveillance began after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, under President George W. Bush. During that period, telephone calls made from the United States to foreign numbers were subject to arbitrary surveillance by the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security.
The former president authorized the establishment of the NSA wiretapping program, designed to monitor international telephone conversations between U.S. citizens and members of al-Qaeda.
A 2005 New York Times report found that, in at least one instance, a conversation between two people in the United States was tapped without a warrant, an action prohibited by law.
The Bush administration confirmed that the program was capable of intercepting calls made by 500 people at any one time, with the total number of people reaching possibly into the thousands during the first term of the Bush administration 2001-2005.
The current ECPA would restrict some of these Bush-era policies requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant to track the location of cell phones.