A bill is being fast-tracked through the Senate which would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before being allowed to access online communications of American citizens.
The bill, being pushed by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, has wide bi-partisan support, with an aide indicating Leahy is "way past" the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster.
If passed, the bill would be the first congressional act in many years to reduce, rather than expand, the government's ability to spy on Americans' digital communications.
While it is clear NSA surveillance revelations are behind the current push to pass this particular bill, it would not affect NSA surveillance powers. It would, however, make it much more difficult for law enforcement to access private data stored online.
Currently, police could compel internet providers to turn over users' digital data with nothing more than a subpoena. According to The Hill, Leahy's bill would change this:
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.Major internet companies, such as Google and Microsoft, are fully behind the bill, and while there is some congressional resistance on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate, momentum for the bill's passage is substantial and encouraging.
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.
Clearly, many in Congress want to be seen as having voted on legislation that limits the ability for law enforcement to spy on Americans, a sign some in Congress are bowing to public opinion against NSA surveillance.
While this legislation does not affect the NSA's massive and unchecked surveillance powers, it is step in the right direction.
Hopefully, it is a first step.