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Bill Would Require Court Order For Cops To Read Emails

There are some issues that advocacy groups and big companies have come to agree on, and one is the main federal wiretapping law is in serious need of an update. Now it looks like the update may actually be coming. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a bill today that would update the law known as the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act, or ECPA.

The main problem with the ECPA is that it’s been interpreted by courts to allow cops to snoop on email without a warrant. That development has been disturbing to public interest groups, but has also begun to bother large corporations that the government has begun to treat as an easy source for evidence, even without a court order.

A coalition of entities interested in reforming the ECPA came together last year, in a group called Digital Due Process. The coalition includes privacy advocacy groups, but many big tech companies have joined Digital Due Process, including AOL (NYSE: AOL), AT&T (NYSE: T), Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), Google (NSDQ: GOOG), Facebook, and eBay (NSDQ: EBAY).

The most important change the bill would make would be to require a search warrant for both reading emails and GPS tracking of suspects, and police who want such evidence will have to make a showing of “probable cause.” Remarkably, in many situations today, neither of those acts of surveillance require court supervision.

The bill is-for the most part-winning praise from privacy advocates. Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology noted that the bill still allows the government to get records tracking a person’s past location without a warrant. “In some ways, the bill does not provide full protection, and we will work to improve it, but as it stands now it is clearly a big leap forward.”

Kevin Bankston, a privacy lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told CNET that he was concerned about the same gap in the bill. But it’s such an improvement over the current situation that he’s happy with it, he said: “We think this is an absolutely necessary and critical update of the law to protect privacy adequately in a cloud-based Internet economy.”