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Privacy law

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A bill that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday would update digital privacy laws to expand constitutional protections to prevent law enforcement from rummaging through personal emails and electronic communications in an era of changing technology.

Police now need a warrant signed by a judge to look at electronically stored information that is less than 180 days old. Beyond that time frame, authorities can read emails, Facebook postings and other stored communications without a warrant, which, privacy experts say, exposes vast amounts of personal and other data in an era of cloud computing and social networking. Much of the data would not be accessible without a warrant if it were on a personal computer or stored on paper in a home or office.

The legislation sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont seeks to amend the 1986 Electronic Privacy Communications Act to require police to obtain a warrant to read emails that are more than 180 days old. In order to obtain a warrant, police must show probable cause, a stricter standard than what is required in some other methods used by police to gather electronic data. Authorities must also notify within 10 business days the individual whose communications are being investigated, although that can be delayed, again by court order, in some investigations.

Some law enforcement officials and prosecutors sought to block the bill, arguing it would make it more difficult to do their jobs. But federal authorities in several Midwestern and Southern states say they are already operating under the warrant requirement due to a court order. Authorities continue to have other methods of gathering some data without a warrant, and the Senate bill still allows police to obtain information from third-party providers when lives are at risk or in cases involving child exploitation or abuse.

Gregory T. Nojeim, with the Center for Democracy and Technology, which advocates for electronic privacy rights, said the bill “keeps the government from turning cloud providers into a one-stop convenience store for government investigators.”

The committee’s action is a first step that Congress should follow through on to strengthen privacy rights.

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