Senate bill to allow warrantless government access to your online services

Jared Newman, PC Adisor |

In a dumbfounding display of politics at work, a U.S. Senate bill that, at one point, would have protected e-mail privacy has gone the opposite way, and would allow government surveillance of online services without a warrant if passed into law.

Previously, the bill protected users’ privacy by requiring a warrant that established probable cause. CNET reports that U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont who heads the Senate Judiciary committee, has rewritten the bill so that, in some cases, government agencies would need only a subpoena to access electronic communications, such as email, Facebook, and Google Docs.

In many cases, searches would still require a warrant. Still, if law enforcement claims that the situation is an emergency, the agency could gain access without a warrant or a subsequent court review.

CNet reports that the bill, HR 2471, could see a vote next week. Leahy was also behind the Protect IP Act (or PIPA), which collapsed in response to backlash from citizens, tech companies, and advocacy groups. Perhaps he’s hoping the holiday weekend will prevent outrage from boiling over on this new–and equally terrifying–bill.

Details of the bill

Overall, 22 federal agencies would have access to electronic communications under these circumstances, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

Also, the rewritten bill states that online service providers, such as Google, would have to notify law enforcement in advance if the company planned to inform users about the account access. Notification would also be delayed from 3 days to 10 business days, and could be postponed up to nearly a year.

Apparently, Leahy changed course on the bill under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department, which felt that its criminal investigations would be hampered by the need to secure search warrants.

Bill origins

The bill’s original purpose was to allow Netflix to publish users’ viewing history on services like Facebook, revising an old law that prevented movie rental histories from being disclosed. The part about law enforcement access to electronic communications is unrelated, and had been tacked on by Leahy with the goal of protecting user privacy. Now, the bill could achieve the opposite result.

The proposed bill comes at a time when government surveillance is on the rise. As Google noted last week, law enforcement made more requests for user information than ever during the first six months of 2012, the most recent reporting period for such requests.