Congress unites to back law that would curb warrantless email searches

A bill aimed at reforming a 30-year-old law, which allows the government warrantless access to old emails, has considerable bipartisan support.

Gmail emails older than 180 days can be snooped on without a warrant (Image: CNET/CBS Interactive)

More than half of the US House of Representatives have backed a proposed law that aims to end warrantless searches of email inboxes.

The proposed law, titled the Email Privacy Act 2015, aims to close a loophole introduced in law three decades ago, which allows the government to access and read emails that were opened more than six months earlier without a court's approval.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI, 5th), who authored the controversial Patriot Act, and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY, 4th), whose election was won on supporting privacy matters, are among the 240 members of the House who co-sponsored the bill.

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A corresponding bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), was introduced in the Senate last week.

Overwhelming bipartisan support for any bill is rare. But in the wake of the National Security Agency surveillance leaks there has been a greater effort to reform the laws that allow the US government unfettered access data on US citizens, despite search and seizure protections laid out by the Fourth Amendment.

Both bills were originally introduced in 2013, but stalled in a fractious and bureaucratic session despite passing the various congressional committees. The reintroduced bills will remain in committee stage until they are voted on later this month or early next.

The proposed law aims to fix the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which is still in effect despite falling behind the curve of the digital age.

"In the nearly three decades since ECPA became law, technology has advanced rapidly and beyond the imagination of anyone living in 1986," Leahy said in a statement last week.

In this day and age when most web-based email inboxes offer free and almost unlimited storage, most historical and archived email is not deleted. That means emails that were opened and left on the server -- most Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo emails are never deleted -- for more than six months can be accessed without a court order or a warrant, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says.

Email less than six-months-old still requires a warrant to be accessed.

Technology titans, including Apple, Google, and Yahoo have come forward in favor of the proposed law.

A number of privacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy & Technology, also support the reform effort.