Justice Dept. to Congress: We want greater email, Facebook, Twitter snooping powers

Justice Dept. to Congress: We want greater email, Facebook, Twitter snooping powers

Summary: As a US House committee prepares to meet to discuss changing outdated email privacy laws, the US government will today tell lawmakers that it wants greater powers to access email data, along with social networking data, such as Facebook and Twitter private messages.

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TOPICS: Privacy
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While revamping and amending existing email privacy laws will be at the top of the agenda later today in a US House committee hearing, the US government will argue that in fact it needs even more surveillance powers over citizens' online data.

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US Congress will meet later today to discuss updates to email privacy laws (Credit: CNET)

The US Justice Department will tell the committee later today that it needs greater provisions to access email data, along with private messages sent between Facebook and Twitter users, according to sister site CNET

This comes as the US House Judiciary Committee will open discussions up to updating an outdated 1986 email privacy law into the modern age in an attempt to give citizens greater protection from such government surveillance. 

Over the course of the hearings, representatives from the Justice Department, Web giants such as Google, and law experts, will give testimony in order to determine whether privacy laws more than 25 years old are offering sufficient protection in the modern digital age, The Hill reports.

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Currently under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), only a subpoena signed by a US prosecutor is needed to compel email providers into handing over emails that are over 180 days old. However, if US authorities wish to read email less than 180 days old, a court-ordered warrant is required. 

The concerns are that most inboxes nowadays are able to hold a near unlimited amount of data spanning the course of many years, compared to the mere megabytes on 1986-based servers. Civil liberties and privacy groups have argued for years that the act is archaic and can be abused by law enforcement. 

Enter the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act (OCGPA) — a draft bill co-sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA). OCGPA is designed to amend the 1986 email privacy law to not only expand the email privacy protection for ordinary citizens, but also to take into account geolocation data by protecting citizens from warrantless cellphone tracking.

If passed, it will also require that a warrant must be served by a court if US authorities want to acquire any electronic communication that a person may possess, including geolocation data that may show where you have physically been.

This would significantly expand the fence around the digital lives that the vast majority of US residents and citizens have from outdated laws that require only subpoenas, which in many cases are too wide in scope and have little judicial oversight. 

But the Justice Dept.'s stance should not come as much of a surprise considering recent history.

In 2011, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) proposed a bill, dubbed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) Amendments Act — similar then to how OCGPA stands now — which would have significantly increased US citizens' email privacy. It did not however take into account provisions relating to gelocation data.

But it was quietly rewritten and its entire purpose flipped completely around after a number of US government agencies complained that it would make it more difficult to bring criminal cases against individuals. 

The rewritten bill instead would have allowed close to two-dozen US federal agencies to access email, cloud-stored files such as those in Google Docs, and private Facebook and Twitter messages without a search warrant. 

Leahy pulled support for his own bill only hours after reports emerged of the controversial changes, who then washed his hands of the bill that had spun out of control.

However, in spite of a bevy of proposed changes to existing laws, cloud service providers under the umbrella of the 1986 law — such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and others — said they still require court-ordered warrants before they will hand over private data to US authorities.

Google also recently reaffirmed that it will only give email content to the federal authorities if they are in receipt of a court order, although the company will provide limited details if it receives a subpoena.

Topic: Privacy

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16 comments
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  • encryption

    Time to make it standard and easy to use. PGP with 1024 bit keys might be a good place to start.
    wally_333
    • Encryption

      @wally_333 - I put considerable effort into building a site that makes encryption a breeze. You can find it by googling "private secure encrypted". It will be the first organic search result. It is ad-free and costs nothing to use.
      MrPrivacy
    • Encryption

      @wally_333 - I put considerable effort into building a site that makes encryption a breeze. You can find it by googling "private secure encrypted". It will be the first organic search result. It is ad-free and costs nothing to use.
      MrPrivacy
  • The DOJ isn't going to get it

    This is one case where the nasty side of partisan politics is likely to prompt Congress to do the right thing (no self-respecting Tea Partier is going to vote to give the Obama Administration increased access to private e-mails). The question is, whether Democrats and Republicans can work together long enough to pass a bill that would require a search warrant for any such access (in the current political climate, I don't think so).
    John L. Ries
    • Considering that

      The republicans have been on the wrong side of Net Neutrality and some advocated for the SOPA nonsense i wouldn't be suprised if they ignorantly colluded with the socialists in in congress to get something like this passed. That this is even being discussed it just more evidence of the slow purposeful creep towards the establishment of a surveillance police state ala Stalinist Russia by the communists in DC.
      ammohunt
      • Considering..

        Dear Sir,
        You DO NOT have socialists in Congress and you already have surveillance system that wildest totalitarian dreams could produce.
        Ashalabad
        • If it acts like a Socialist...

          ...and votes like a Socialist, what the heck else would it be? Compare Congressional votes to those which a Socialist would support. You will find that the Congress is approximately 40% Socialist, although they will deny it.
          Iman Oldgeek
        • Reconsider...

          The "Communist Party, U.S.A." has published a list of 70 members of Congress that are members of its caucus. That's just those who are formally members. We are infiltrated by communists and socialists at all levels. :(
          Techboy_z
          • Published where?

            And have you personally ever seen it?

            Inquiring minds what to know
            John L. Ries
      • Republicans might give such powers to one of their own

        But the chances of their giving them to a Democratic administration are zero.
        John L. Ries
  • Scale the search warrants and add penalties

    Ignoring how the more covert agencies can and do ignore all privacy laws when national security (supposedly) is at stake, you might find better balance by adjusting how search warrants are obtained by the less covert agencies. For instance, when dealing with criminal activity involving cyber fraud and wily perpetrators who use a host of methods to hide who they are and where they operate from, investigators could ask for a "comprehensive" warrant that covers all searches possibly needed for a full investigation instead of having to get individual warrants for email records, house searches and such. But in every case where normally a separate probable cause warrant is needed, that has to be noted and justified with a description of its connection to the overall investigation. This would be a form of "anticipatory warrant" which has been found to not violate the 4th Amendment.

    For time sensitive, emergency needs, something like a good faith, self-signed 24 hr warrant without prior approval could be used if obtaining a warrant through standard means would delay things enough to let obvious perpetrators slip away or destroy evidence. There is precedent for this when there is good cause that evidence would be destroyed (like flushing drugs down a toilet) if immediate action is not taken. But such actions would have to be reviewed later for justification for not waiting for a standard warrant. If no justification is found, evidence obtained is not only invalidated, but penalties automatically applied for abuse of system (docking a week's pay for all involved might be a good incentive to not do this stuff casually.)
    JustCallMeBC
  • Scaling won't work.

    The "Self Signed" warrant makes the assumption that the person signing it is in good faith. Remember that any evidence of a violation of any law can be introduced as evidence of a separate prosecution, If any initial warrant was seen as valid. If a warrant is invalid for any reason, then any evidence obtained while that warrant was undertaken is "Fruit of a Poison Tree".
    Example. I invade your house with a warrant to seize drugs and find a dead body on the floor. Tada. You are in trouble. I invade your house with a warrant to seize drugs and find a laptop computer on it. If it has contact names and addresses visible to me, or able to be found, then I have Probable cause to use the information on that laptop. And if I find Child Porn on it, it is a set of separate charges stemming from the that discovery while in pursuit of a Drug Ring.

    In both of your cases, you are providing prosecution with tools that they do Not need in our society. Unless your aim is to protect the government from the governed.
    jjmcdonald7911@...
    • The idea is to reduce warrantless searches

      And all warrants are based some sort of good faith, from the detectives who think they found enough evidence for probable cause, the DA who thinks the detectives did a good job, and the judge who thinks the DA made his/her case. As far as I'm concerned, the Patriot Act was for the benefit of law enforcement officials too lazy and incompetent to do their homework properly.

      Would you be willing to scrap the Patriot Act in trade for mildly scaled warrants?
      JustCallMeBC
  • Stinky fingers

    I think the feds have put their fingers in enough anatomical parts to be considered rapists, now they want to ask so they can't be convicted. Did I read that correctly?
    David Nesbitt
  • Justice Dept. to Congress: We want greater email, Facebook, Twitter snoopin

    i am sorry but no they have been giving to much has it is and that is wrong to spy on usa people and to fly dromes over the usa to spy on usa people that is wrong
    ttx19
  • ZDNet isn't that into supporting the 1st Amendment are they?

    I've heard more of what they consider profanity from priests and Kindergarden teachers than they allow.
    Dr_Zinj