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Dear Congress: End warrantless email monitoring immediately

Patrick Leahy

We were so close.

A non-controversial bill,  the Video Privacy Protection Act, flew through the Senate and was sent to President Obama last week. The bill itself isn’t important; it allows people using services like Netflix to post the movies that they were watching directly from the service onto Facebook and other social media sites just as they can do now with music sites like Spotify. This is currently against the law because of legislation from 1988 when Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s video rental history was leaked. That’s not the important part.

What was important was that a section of the bill adjusted the current powers given to law enforcement that allows them to collect and monitor emails older than 180 days without a warrant.

Is Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) the only sane person in Congress? He is often a lone voice unheard when it comes to protecting the online privacy of American citizens. Until last week, he was on the verge of finally sneaking in legislation that would prevent law enforcement from being able to access information such as emails without a warrant as long as they had been stored on cloud services for more than 180 days. Just before it was passed and sent to the White House, the email privacy provisions were removed.

Now, as always, law enforcement does not need to supply a warrant to read your emails. They don’t need probably cause. They don’t even need to suspect that you have committed a crime. They only need to have “reasonable grounds to believe” the information would be useful in an investigation. They only need an administrative subpoena (pdf), a controversial concept itself that is intentionally shrouded in obscurity and incoherent reasoning. Very few things are more vague, even in the US government.

There are definitely more controversial and ominous privacy concerns rolling around Washington DC today, but this is one that should be a no-brainer. If you have the evidence to demonstrate probably cause, you can get a warrant and look in people’s emails. That’s not too much to ask. The sooner the government stops holding onto the principle that they need more powers over the people and the internet to stop terrorism or whatever it is they’re fighting these days, the better off we’ll all be. It’s not an issue of putting up blockades against law enforcement. It’s about making sure that the laws they are trying to uphold are not being stomped on by removing our rights to privacy.

This isn’t a thin line. It’s a very large line they continue to cross day after day. With every right that is taken from us, the need for the people to push back becomes more clear. We’re not all enemy combatants. We’re not all terrorists. We’re not all fighting against America.

Stop treating us like we are. Remove the 180 day limit and make accessing our private emails something that can only be done with a warrant.

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