U.S. attorney general: Government should get a warrant before email, cloud storage snooping

The U.S.' highest ranking lawyer supports changes to existing email and online storage snooping laws, which are currently under scrutiny in the U.S. House.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Congress is currently scrutinizing existing email and online storage laws.
Image: CNET

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder supports privacy changes that would require the government to seek a warrant based on probable cause to obtain cloud-stored email, and other documents and files stored in the cloud.

"But the more general notion of having a warrant to obtain the content of communications from a service provider is something that we support," Holder added, noting that citizen privacy and the government's ability to access such data is "one of the most important conversations" to be had in this day and age.

He stated that there were "very limited circumstances" in which there should be exemptions, such as in civil investigations. 

Holder becomes highest ranking White House official to support such cloud-stored privacy protections.

It's a far cry away from the Justice Department's position only two years ago, whereby the government agency warned that police investigations and "human life" would be under threat if search warrants were required for email and location data.

Under current e-storage rules, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) currently allows the U.S. government to access email older than six months old or if they had been marked as "read" or opened, with a subpoena signed by a federal prosecutor. Only email less than six months old requires a warrant signed by a judge. 

The government only needs to offer an administrative subpoena — a request for data that bypasses the courts and the judiciary — in which it has "reasonable grounds to believe" that such data would be useful in an active investigation.

Holder's comments come at a time when ECPA is under scrutiny in Congress.

A bipartisan bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in late April that would amend ECPA, signed into law in 1986 when email was still in its infancy and cloud-based services didn't exist, that will require the government to inform a U.S. resident when their email has been disclosed via a search warrant.

Two exceptions exist, where a National Security Letter "gagging order" — which was recently ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court; and the other if it would jeopardize an ongoing investigation.

The Justice Department's acting assistant attorney general Elana Tyrangiel said during a hearing in a U.S. House committee in March that "it makes sense that the statute not accord lesser protection to opened emails than it gives to emails that are unopened."

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