Tech firms, civil liberty groups oppose email privacy amendment

Tech companies and privacy advocates are calling foul on a proposed amendment to an email privacy bill that that was originally intended to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).
Tech companies and privacy advocates are calling foul on a proposed amendment to an email privacy bill that that was originally intended to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

Tech companies and privacy advocates are calling foul on a proposed amendment to an email privacy bill that that was originally intended to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a 30-year-old law that set limitations on government access of electronic data.

A coalition that includes technology companies Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Foursquare sent an open letter to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), a co-sponsor of the Email Privacy Act. Their concerns center around an amendment Cornyn introduced allowing the law enforcement agencies to obtain email records without a warrant. The group says the amendment fundamentally changes the nature of the legislation, which was unanimously approved in April by the House.

The signatories “strongly oppose an expansion of the National Security Letter (NSL) statute,” the letter stated. “We would oppose any version of these bills that included such a proposal expanding the government's ability to access private data without a court order.”

The coalition also consists of industry groups and civil liberty organizations and think tanks, including the American Civil Liberties Union, American Library Association, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, New America's Open Technology Institute, R Street, and Tech Freedom.

“The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures. But as technology progressed, Congress failed to ensure that protections were in place to protect our privacy from government overreach,” wrote FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon, one of the letter's signatories, in an email sent to SC Magazine.com.  “We strongly urge members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to reject poison pill amendments, such as those sponsored by Sen. Cornyn, that would undermine the privacy protections in the bill.”

“As we migrate our lives increasingly online, all of our beliefs, predilections, biases, wants and desires can be seen in that fingerprint,” wrote Gabe Rottman, deputy director of the freedom, security and technology project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, in a CDT blog post.  “Add to that the sheer volume of national security letters being issued, which is in the tens of thousands.  Without a neutral judge keeping tabs on why the FBI is issuing these NSLs and seeking these records, the potential for misuse, abuse, or simple mistake is extreme.

Bills attempting to update the ECPA were previously introduced in the House and Senate in 2015 and 2013, respectively, but failed to gather support.

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