Do the police need a warrant to read your email? Believe it or not, two decades into the Internet age, the answer to that question is still “maybe.” It depends on how old the email is, where you keep it — and it even depends on whom you ask.
Some big-name tech companies are now asking Congress to step in and clarify Americans’ online privacy rights. […]
A warrant means police have to show probable cause — it’s a higher level of oversight, the kind of court order that cops need before they come into your home and, say, rummage through your desk.
The thing is, search warrants take more time and effort, so police sometimes point to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986; it says they don’t need a warrant for older emails. [Richard Salgado, senior counsel at Google,] admits that’s true — and it’s a problem.
“I think that your average user would be very surprised to hear the federal privacy statute that governs cloud computing would allow the disclosure of their emails with nothing more than an administrative subpoena,” he says.
So Google insists on a warrant anyway — a warrant signed by a judge — on the theory that emails enjoy a higher, constitutional protection. Two federal appeals courts in different parts of the country have echoed this argument and most law enforcement agencies now do tend to get warrants. But tech companies say that doesn’t resolve the bigger problem — that federal Internet privacy law is 25 years old and out of date. […]
An ambitious bill now in the Senate would cover everything from cloud computing to location data on phones. The chief sponsor, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, hopes to move it through the Judiciary Committee before the next election. But even if it passes the Senate, the bill faces a tougher challenge in the House, where the tech industry’s lobbying muscle is less likely to overcome the Republican majority’s reluctance to hamper law enforcement.