The Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] on Thursday approved a bill [text, PDF] that would prevent police from searching emails and other electronic content without a warrant. Currently, under the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act [text], law enforcement agents only need a warrant to access emails less than 6 months old. The new bill is sponsored by committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy [official website], who was also the lead author of the 1986 law. Leahy explained during the committee vote that with new technologies and expanding government surveillance, Americans face a greater threat to their digital privacy [AP report]. The full Senate is currently in a lame-duck session and is not expected to consider the bill until it reconvenes early next year. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] has applauded the proposed legislation [press release], but the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] and other law enforcement groups have voiced opposition to the bill, saying it would impede criminal investigations.
Communications privacy has become a controversial issue in recent years in light of technological advances. Leahy introduced a similar email protection bill [JURIST report] in May 2011, stating the law needed an update to reflect the realities of our time. In 2010, the Federal Bureau Investigation (FBI) came under fire after it was discovered that it had collected more than 2,000 telephone records [JURIST report] between 2002 and 2006 by claiming the phone calls being made related to possible terrorism emergencies. In 2005, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website] held that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act should be broadly interpreted [JURIST report] allowing an email provider alleged to have read correspondence in transit to customers to be tried on federal charges.