Senate Moves To Update Federal Online Privacy Laws

The long-promised update to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act is moving through Congress. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would make the police get a warrant before peeking at your old emails and anything else you store online. The House is moving in the same direction.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yesterday, the Senate took a step toward updating the federal online privacy law. It's a law that dates back to a time when most people had never heard of the Internet.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The 1986 law says investigators don't need a warrant for anything you keep online more than six months. But in practice, these days, many judges and tech companies do require warrants. That's why it was such a shock when it came out two weeks ago that the IRS has not kept up with the times: it still has a policy of not getting warrants.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy says that revelation helped the case for reform.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: When I talk to people about what the IRS did, you know, it sets up red flags everywhere.

KASTE: Leahy's committee yesterday approved a bill requiring warrants for all online content, no matter how old. That means police would have to show probable cause of a crime before snooping.

The Judiciary Committee in the House is considering a similar bill, which may also extend warrant protection to cell phone location data.

Former Justice Department official Mark Eckenwiler warned that overly broad warrant requirements might hamper investigators.

MARK ECKENWILER: There are various pieces that go into an investigation - especially at these earliest stages - when probable cause has not yet been developed. There would be significant costs to law enforcement.

KASTE: Warrant requirement bills in both chambers do make exceptions for emergencies and national security. The Senate bill is now headed to the floor.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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