Americans were rightfully shocked last June when news broke in The Guardian that the National Security Agency was collecting vast swaths of private information from U.S. citizens, ranging from phone call metadata to personal emails. The situation became much more dire when it was revealed that the U.S. Department of Justice was wiretapping journalists and seizing their emails. Under the weight of public pressure and Congressional Oversight hearings, President Obama pledged to dial back his Administration’s surveillance policies, but the damage was already done – and any facade of trust between government, the media, and the American public was shattered.
Part of the problem has been that the government is conducting surveillance in a digital age, while the American public is protected only by antiquated laws that were written 30 years ago, when Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). The gaps in this obsolete policy allow law enforcement to search online data, including emails, that are more than 180 days old. There is broad bipartisan agreement that ECPA inadequately addresses our current technological landscape and law enforcement needs, in a way that protects civil liberties.
This afternoon Senators Orin Hatch (R-UT), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Dean Heller (R-NV) introduced the LEADS Act (Law Enforcement Access to Data Stored Abroad Act), which, if enacted, would amend ECPA, requiring a warrant to obtain emails and other content from online, third party servers and cloud computing services. The proposed legislation would also bring greater accountability and transparency, mandating the Attorney General to develop an online system for the collection, tracking, and publication of data related to requests from foreign governments.
If the LEADS Act passes it would be a huge victory for privacy rights and civil liberties advocates. Existing law is simply incompatible with modern technological advances, and inhibits online innovation that has thrived under an internet that has evolved without regard to geopolitical borders. With government ever encroaching into the details of our lives we can start establishing a healthier balance between national security concerns and common sense privacy protections.