Texas could set new standard on email privacy laws

Texas could soon end up leading the US in email privacy regulations, assuming Governor Rick Perry allows a new bill compelling law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant prior to accessing online correspondence to become law.

The new bill (HB 2268) has been sent to the governor, and looks
to provide a roadmap to updating the 1986 Electronic
Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) which requires federal law
enforcement to obtain warrants only when accessing recent emails,
before they are accessed by recipients.

Online privacy activists such as the Electronic Frontier
Foundation and the ACLU have long argued that ECPA, which
essentially allows unopened emails over 180 days old to be
accessed without a warrant, is woefully outdated.

Considering the current prevalence of electronic mail, it seems
that the Department of Justice also agrees that ECPA should be
modernized to better reflect current privacy concerns.

In a written testimony presented to the House in March of 2013,
Acting Assistant Attorney General Elana Tyrangiel outlined the
legislation as it exists today:

“We agree, for example, that there is no principled basis to
treat e-mail less than 180 days old differently than e-mail more
than 180 days old. Similarly, it makes sense that the statute not
accord lesser protection to opened e-mails than it gives to
e-mails that are unopened. Acknowledging that the so-called
‘180-day rule’ and other distinctions in the [Stored
Communications Act, a sub-section of ECPA] no longer make sense
is an important first step. The harder question is how to update
those outdated rules and the statute in light of new and changing
technologies while maintaining protections for privacy and
adequately providing for public safety and other law enforcement
imperatives.”

The Texas governor now has until June 16, 2013 to either sign the
new law, which passed both chambers of the state legislature
without a single dissenting vote and is slated to take effect on
September 1, 2013 – or veto.

According to the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition, one of the
main backers of the new law, at the time that ECPA was introduced
no one conceived that data would be stored for more than six
months. Based on technology at that time, data older than this
was considered “abandoned.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry (AFP Photo / Frederic J. Brown)

“Most people are shocked when
they learn that law enforcement or government agencies like the
Department of Insurance can get the contents of email or find out
everywhere you’ve been for the past two months by going directly
to your service provider,”
said Greg Foster, of EFF
Austin.

As Ars Technica notes, however, the new Texas bill would not
protect individuals from federal investigations, though the
precedent set by the legislation could well set the standard for
other states around the US, and trickle its way to federal reform
of ECPA.

In addition to making all private email access subject to a
warrant request, the new state law would also pertain to detailed
cell-phone location data, another key issue in the current debate
over modernizing online privacy laws.

In April, US District Judge David Campbell ruled in United States v. Rigmaiden that
federal investigators could present evidence gathered via the use
of a wireless access card purchased by a plaintiff, which had at
the request of the FBI been reprogrammed by the provider,
Verizon, to provide location data to a “spoofed cell tower.”

Modifications to state law could well mean that local law
enforcement would need to go through additional legal motions
before obtaining a suspect’s wireless geo-location data. It
might, ultimately, also call into question the use of technology
like Stingray (or IMSI catcher) which allows law enforcement
agencies to “spoof” real
cell towers in order to collect data from all nearby mobile
devices and sift through to find a suspect.

Just how powerful the new Texas privacy bill may ultimately be if
signed into law by Governor Perry remains to be seen, though
backers like the ACLU believe that even a symbolic step could be
key in securing federal Congressional support.

“It’s always good to see states
passing pro-privacy legislation because it sends a signal to
Congress. It sends a signal to conservative members who might not
yet be on board that this is something being supported in their
own states and it helps the courts to see that this is a safe
space to venture into. When cities and states start protecting
e-mail, then judges may feel like there is a reasonable
expectation of privacy,”
said Chris Soghoian, an ACLU
senior policy analyst who spoke to Ars Technica.

This article originally appeared on: RT