Keeping Cops’ Hands Off Email

WASHINGTON — Congress is inching toward making it tougher for police to intercept email messages.

WASHINGTON — Congress is inching toward making it tougher for police to intercept email messages.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 2000, which requires law enforcement agents to obtain a search warrant before reading email messages stored on a server.

“Merely by virtue of the fact that open emails are kept on the Internet or on a network server — instead of on the user’s personal computer — they get less protection,” said sponsor Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Ca.).

“This distinction is indefensible, and totally contradicts people’s reasonable expectations of privacy in their open emails,” said Lofgren, who successfully added her amendment to the bill.

Police currently can obtain stored email through an administrative subpoena, which does not require a judge’s signature, that is sent to a company or Internet provider.

The overwhelming support for restricting government surveillance — there was a solitary nay vote — indicates the growing interest in privacy on Capitol Hill.

But the legislation is exceedingly unlikely to be enacted, at least this year. For that to happen, both the full House and Senate would have to act in the next one or two weeks.

And even now, as concerns over Carnivore, Echelon, and similar systems mount, legislators seem to feel the need to pledge their support for law enforcement.

“We’re trying to create a balanced package here,” said Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fl.), the chief sponsor of the overall bill. “We’re trying to work with law enforcement here to pass a law that will enhance privacy.”

The lone committee member to oppose the measure predicted it would hamstring cops.

“This bill could gut some law enforcement tools that are necessary to deal with a breed of crime that’s getting more and more sophisticated,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY).

Weiner said it would unnecessarily hinder investigations and “address a problem that’s not really there.”

Lofgren’s amendment also says that when law enforcement asks an Internet provider to disclose email content or other electronic communications, the person under investigation must be notified at the same time the warrant is served. “This is simply a matter of fairness and due process for Internet users,” Lofgren said.

Other portions of the bill make illegally intercepted electronic communications inadmissible in court and require judges to compile statistics on electronic surveillance.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, successfully attached an amendment that would prohibit the defacing, damaging or destroying of information protected under the First Amendment that is placed on the Internet. Since any such activity is almost certainly illegal already, Conyers’ plan would have the effect of increasing the penalties.

“I’m in full support of free expression,” Conyers said. “But free expression does not include the right the trample someone else’s message.”

Some privacy activists say the legislation doesn’t go far enough.

“The bill still doesn’t solve all the privacy problems out there, especially when it comes to Carnivore, which we see as a big issue,” said Andrew Shen, a policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, after the hearing. “While it may address certain privacy concerns, there are still those outstanding questions that we would like to see Congress address.”

Nicholas Morehead contributed to this report

Author: Declan McCullagh

News Service: Wired News

URL: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,39120,00.html