A bit of good news from the Senate. Vermont Senator Pat Leahy wants to fast trak a bill that would require police to get a warrant if they wanted access to a citizen's emails and other online communications.
Sen. Patrick Leahy's (D-Vt.) goal is for the Senate to unanimously approve his bill before the August recess, according to one of his committee aides. Any opposition could delay a vote until after Congress returns in the fall.
Leahy's aide claimed that even if a floor vote is delayed until after the recess, they are already "way past" the 60 votes they would need to overcome a filibuster and approve the bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Lee (Utah).
Gregory Nojeim, a senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology and a supporter of stronger privacy protections, said that the news of the National Security Agency's surveillance programs has given Leahy's bill a new boost of momentum.
"Revelations about NSA spying have made members of Congress very concerned about privacy," Nojeim said. "I think a lot of members are eager to vote for privacy legislation, and this provides that opportunity."
Leahy's bill would not affect the NSA programs, but it would curb the ability of local and federal law enforcement officials to access private online messages.
Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, police only need a subpoena, issued without a judge's approval, to force Internet companies to turn over emails that have been opened or that are more than 180 days old.
When lawmakers passed ECPA more than 25 years ago, they failed to anticipate that email providers would offer massive online storage. They assumed that if a person hadn't downloaded and deleted an email within six months, it could be considered abandoned and wouldn't require strict privacy protections.
Leahy and privacy advocates argue that ECPA is woefully out of date and that police should need a warrant, based on probable cause and approved by a judge, to read a person's emails.
Online communications have been treated in the past like a poor step child of other kinds of communications. Any improvement in this area is welcome.