New bill could give law enforcement access to your emails.

It will surprise some that this bill comes from the Democrats, but it does not surprise me.

CNET has learned that Patrick Leahy, the influential Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, has dramatically reshaped his legislation in response to law enforcement concerns. A vote on his bill, which now authorizes warrantless access to Americans’ e-mail, is scheduled for next week.

Leahy’s rewritten bill would allow more than 22 agencies — including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would give the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge. (CNET obtained the revised draft from a source involved in the negotiations with Leahy.)

Before being elected to his first term, even President Obama said he would “filibuster of any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies”, and then he supported the FISA bill extension that did precisely that.  Then, when it was challenged, he wanted the challenge dismissed. Later, the President supported the bill’s extension.  In the case of Obama this is even more unforgivable since he is a Constitutional scholar, and should know what an egregious violation to liberty that was.

So yes, Democrats can make lousy decisions with regards to personal liberty as well, which is precisely what this is.  If law enforcement officials have a reasonable suspicion of illegal activities, they can get a warrant.  They shouldn’t be allowed to poke around whenever they damn well please.

Here are some of the highlights.

  • Grants warrantless access to Americans’ electronic correspondence to over 22 federal agencies. Only a subpoena is required, not a search warrant signed by a judge based on probable cause.
  • Permits state and local law enforcement to warrantlessly access Americans’ correspondence stored on systems not offered “to the public,” including university networks.
  • Authorizes any law enforcement agency to access accounts without a warrant — or subsequent court review — if they claim “emergency” situations exist.
  • Says providers “shall notify” law enforcement in advance of any plans to tell their customers that they’ve been the target of a warrant, order, or subpoena.
  • Delays notification of customers whose accounts have been accessed from 3 days to “10 business days.” This notification can be postponed by up to 360 days.

Thank Random Number Generator for companies like Google who tell us when our governments try to pry into our personal business.

Mark Rotenberg hit the nail on the head.

Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that in light of the revelations about how former CIA director David Petraeus’ e-mail was perused by the FBI, “even the Department of Justice should concede that there’s a need for more judicial oversight,” not less.

But, of course, the Obama DoJ won’t.

Aside from being a clear violation of public privacy and the fourth amendment, this bill could also slow the impact of developing technologies – not what we need with our economy the way it is right now.  Many individuals and companies are moving toward storing information on the cloud, which is driving the development of that technology.  If people/companies become reticent to do so, you’ve just sliced the Achilles tendon for the businesses who have dumped tons of money into a growing field and for no good reason.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • sqlrob

    Aside from being a clear violation of public privacy and the fourth amendment, this bill could also slow the impact of developing technologies

    I’m not so sure about that. Encryption will grow by leaps and bounds and become much easier to use. In the short term, you’re almost certainly right. In the medium to long term, I think encryption will become much more common making this moot.

    • JDawg

      Moot? No I don’t think so. Encryption can be broken and if you think encrypting your email & communications is going to stop a bound and determined federal government with unlimited resources and no regard for civil liberties from nosing around in your business, think again.

      • Compuholic

        Modern public key encryption (like RSA or even better ECC) cannot be easily broken without any additional information. If someone only listens in to encrypted email messages it is very unlikely that anyone could decrypt them. The only feasible way to do it is to break into the computer and to obtain the key from there.

        • mobathome

          So long as there isn’t a required backdoor or mandatory key escrow, we’re safe.

      • Rob

        If they want to really break it, no. But it prevents mass trolling by a long shot, there’s nowhere near enough resources for that.

    • RuQu

      Here is the list of Senators on that committee.

      If a senator from your state is listed, you can find a link to email them here:

      • Baal

        Thanks RuQu. Amy and Al will be getting emails from me. This is little more than population level fishing expeditions.
        I like to ask the folks who don’t care about stuff like this if I could have their FB and email passes or if they’d mind me reading their banking and medical records. They always say they would mind and occasionally offer that the nameless faceless government doesn’t really care about them as individuals. I usually then ask what their positions are on guns, gays, gdrugs and whether or not they’d mind if that information was shared with their current boss (business will never want the gov to supply person specific information will they? ).

  • RuQu

    Birth Control for Church Employees? The End of Freedom! America is Dead!
    Explicitly violating the 4th Amendment? Silence.

    Remarkable how much they can kick and scream over issues like a 4.6% tax increase on 2% of people, but not make a peep of protest over literally and explicitly eroding our most basic freedoms.

    • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

      Yes, but the right wing likes that sort of abuse of power. They’re the ones who cheer abuses of power like police brutality and prison rape because they get all tingly in a special place when they think of Bad Things happening to Bad People. How do you spot the Bad People? They’re the ones Bad Things are happening to, obviously!

      So they like things like erosion of privacy rights, because surely Good People like them won’t suffer, and besides which, they just love the thought of the police going through someone else’s life with a fine tooth comb fishing for something to charge them with.

  • John Horstman
    • Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

      This bill has become public? Commence backpedaling! I support privacy and we’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

  • Stephen

    I hesitate to venture into this a little but here’s my perspective out front: I’m a police detective and often rely upon evidence gleaned from electronic communications. I am not American though and cannot speak to American legal standards. I stand firmly in favour of strong judicial review before nearly any invasions of privacy, and the rare exceptions to that rule should be both genuinely rare and subject to judicial review after the fact. I do not engage upon my investigations lightly, and cannot therefore look upon any leads that take me into anywhere with an expectation of privacy lightly. My end result needs to pass judicial scrutiny, so it would be intellectually dishonest for me to expect that my interim work should not pass judicial scrutiny either. That being said, if I do have the grounds to persuade a judicial authority to grant a warrant or other order to allow an invasion of privacy, then I need to and ought to be able to act on that. If criminal laws are our society’s line in the sand, then I ought to be able to engage a thorough investigation, subject to checks and balances.

    My investigations have to be both thorough and impartial: sometimes, I can disprove allegations without ever having to disrupt the days of the impugned person and just notify them afterwards. I look upon criminal investigations rather like I did scientific inquiries; charging someone is roughly analogous to ‘failure to reject the hypothesis’ in science (my undergraduate degree is a BSc). I need though to be able to access all the information I can reasonably acquire to do so in order to make the analogy to science complete.

    The only times that I support warrantless invasions of online privacy are in situations that are genuine emergencies: for instance hostage or kidnapping situations where lives are demonstrably on the line, and even in those, I support both public disclosure of the use of those and subsequent judicial approval and review of the use of those emergency powers. I also support the protection of investigations while they are underway by -for limited periods of time- preventing agencies such as ISPs and telecomms providers from disclosing warrants if such ‘gag orders’ judicially authorized. Transparency is essential, but while critical investigations are underway, sometimes transparency needs to be briefly delayed, but never eliminated.

    I know that what I do (child abuse investigations) can sometimes invoke a certain amount of hyperbole in those who both feel my type of investigation is paramount to civil liberties and as well those who cast my sort of work in a kind of Godwin’s Law, ‘boogeyman’ kind of spectre. I fall into the middle ground between them. I just want to do my job; I want no safe havens for those who offend against children, but I also want my work to be subject to scrutiny and for all I do to eventually be vouchsafed by the courts and the public.

    I find these discussions are often waged by the idealists on both sides. I only venture into this because I think it valuable from someone at the coalface of the issue.