In a rare display of bipartisanship the US House of Representatives has passed the Email Privacy Act (EPA) in a 419-0 vote.
The legislation updates the antiquated 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and closes an important privacy loophole. Under ECPA the police could examine any email that had been read or that was more than 180 days old with only a subpoena, whereas under the EPA they would need a warrant obtained from a judge.
"Today is a major step forward to protect our civil liberties," said one of the bill's sponsors Representative Jared Polis (D-CO).
"Citizens should no longer be at risk of having their emails warrantlessly searched by government agencies. The Email Privacy Act will update our archaic privacy laws for the 21st century and safeguard our Fourth Amendment rights. I'm proud that the House has passed this commonsense bill, and I look forward to a swift passage in the Senate."
The ECPA was crafted before most people even used email, and those that did stored messages on their own PCs and regularly cleaned them out to save on precious hard drive space. With the rise of cloudy webmail people seldom delete their emails and the police were able to gather vast amounts of personal data with a simple subpoena that doesn't require much in the way of judicial oversight.
"With the rise of cloud computing, our emails, photos and texts are stored with third parties," said Chris Calabrese, vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).
"In order for the law to keep up with technology and users' reasonable expectation of privacy, that information must be protected by a search warrant. That's the same constitutional standard that protects the information we store in our homes."
The bill will now move onto the Senate for a separate vote. It had been feared that the Senate would drag its feet on the issue, but the unanimous vote will put extra pressure on the upper chamber to pull its finger out and get the legislation enacted.
"The level of bipartisan support for this bill is a reflection of public's strong belief that the government must respect and protect privacy rights in the digital age," Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel for American Civil Liberties Union said.
"Now it's the Senate's turn to pass this important bill and strengthen it by including a requirement that the government inform people when it forces companies to turn over their information." ®