The Senate Is About to Let More Than 22 Agencies Spy on Your Email and Documents Without a Warrant (Update: Not Any More)

What began as a bill designed to protect the privacy of your digital life has been mangled at the behest of law enforcement agencies. CNET reports that if the revised Senate bill isn't stopped before it goes to vote next week, 22 federal agencies will have warrantless access to troves of your private information. Let's stop them. Updated below

It seems that at first, Senator Patrick Leahy was trying to do the right thing. CNET reports that when the Democratic senator from Vermont first proposed the update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act last year, the idea was to make it harder for the government to spy on you. From the senator's press release at the time:

The legislation includes enhanced privacy protections for the content of Americans' email and other electronic communications, which would be subject to a search warrant requirement based on probable cause. The bill also includes new privacy protections for Americans' location information that is collected, used or stored by service providers, smartphones and other mobile technologies.

This makes perfect sense. When the authorities come shakedown your property—digital or otherwise—they need to demonstrate probable cause for their actions before a judge. CNET says that's the version of the bill that was scheduled for a vote this September. Then, privacy-hating law-enforcement agencies like National Sheriffs' Association complained, and your privacy was thrown out the window in the name of political efficacy.

CNET reports that the bill was "quietly reworked" into a series of amendments to the ECPA that turn your email and other electronic property into an open book they can read basically whenever they feel like it.

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.)

Now, we can't see the documents CNET is reporting on but based on their reporting, we're led to believe the list of government agencies that will be able to access your information without a warrant will be the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI plus this laundry list of regulatory agencies:

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Federal Maritime Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Mine Enforcement Safety and Health Review Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, the Postal Regulatory Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, the Office of Financial Research, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency...

Now without seeing the actual revised draft of Senator Leahy's bill, we can't be sure, but that's the implication.

Oh hell no, we cannot allow this to happen. Our elected representatives sneakily pushed these changes through right after the election and right before a holiday so that the fewest number of people possible would be paying attention. Contact your senators now and tell them you're opposed to Leahy's amendments to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. [CNET]

Image by Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock

Update

CNET has published another story after Senator Leahy said he would not support the controversial proposal. Apparently, CNET's report was based on documents circulated "prior to mark up." Phew!