The FBI Can Still Read Your Email Without A Warrant, But This Bill Would Change That

12/05/2013 01:32 pm ET | Updated Dec 05, 2013
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Activists are making a last-minute push to get an email privacy bill passed this congressional session, in the hopes they can reform a law that allows the FBI and local police to obtain Americans' emails without a warrant.

The 1986 law, called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, was a first shot at providing some sort of protection for online messages. But in many cases, it requires law enforcement officials only to state they need an email for an investigation, not to persuade a judge they have probable cause for a warrant.

"Law enforcement doesn't need a warrant to access email that's older than 180 days," said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, who further noted how far this power extends. "Our private communications are accessible to local police, state police, the FBI at a very low legal standard. We're not talking about the [National Security Agency] here."

The ACLU and a long list of others -- from civil liberties advocates to library organizations to social media sites -- have declared Thursday a national day of action on email privacy. They're pressing to collect signatures for a White House petition advocating passage of a pair of House and Senate bills that would add a warrant requirement to the 1986 law. The petition, which seeks to reach 100,000 signatures by Dec. 12, calls on the Obama administration to support the reform.

Without a public push, the email privacy legislation might not get full floor votes this year. The Senate bill, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), has already passed committee, and a House version, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), has more than 150 sponsors.

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