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Bill aims to protect privacy of emails

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 7:42 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Over objections from law enforcement officials, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation that would require police to obtain a search warrant from a judge before they can review a person's emails or other electronic communications.

Passed on Thursday, the bill would make it slightly more difficult for the government to access the content of a consumer's emails and private files from Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other Internet providers. Under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a warrant is needed only for emails less than 6 months old.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., committee chairman and the bill's sponsor, said digital files on a computer should have the same safeguards as paper files stored in a home. Americans “face even greater threats to their digital privacy, as we witness the explosion of new technologies and the expansion of the government's surveillance powers,” Leahy said during the committee's vote.

The full Senate is in a lame-duck session and is not expected to vote on the legislation until it reconvenes in January. The GOP-led House Judiciary Committee hasn't voted on a similar bill introduced by Democrats.

The resignation of Gen. David Petraeus a few weeks ago as head of the CIA over an extramarital affair focused public attention on federal agents' access to individuals' email accounts.

Privacy advocates and civil liberties groups applauded the committee's action, saying the law is outdated in an era of cloud computing, cheaper electronic storage, social networking and wireless phones. Such advances in technology have increased dramatically the amount of stored communications in ways that no one anticipated a quarter of a century ago.

“We are very happy that the committee voted that all electronic content like emails, photos and other communications held by companies like Google and Facebook should be protected with a search warrant,” said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Justice Department and other law enforcement groups had resisted changes to the law. James Baker, associate deputy attorney general, urged the committee last year to consider the adverse impact on criminal and national security investigations if a warrant were the only means for law enforcement officials to obtain emails and other digital files.

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