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A journalist looks at her Blackberry communication device on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 18, 2007.  Research In Motion Ltd said on Wednesday that BlackBerry service has been restored to "most" users of the wireless e-mail device after a service interruption that affected customers in North America.
   REUTERS/Jim Young   (UNITED STATES) - RTR1ORO1 A journalist looks at her Blackberry communication device on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 18, 2007. Research In Motion Ltd said on Wednesday that BlackBerry service has been restored to "most" users of the wireless e-mail device after a service interruption that affected customers in North America. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES) - RTR1ORO1  

House Supports Bill Requiring Warrants For Email Searches

Giuseppe Macri
Tech Editor

A majority of lawmakers in the House of Representatives now support a bill requiring agencies like the National Security Agency to get warrants before accessing private emails.

Kansas Republican Kevin Yoder and Colorado Democrat Jared Polis rounded out 218 co-sponsors for the Email Privacy Act Tuesday night — potentially giving it enough momentum to move forward in the lower chamber this year.

“Having a majority of house members supporting our bill shows House leadership that the bill would pass… if it was put on the house floor,” Yoder told the Hill, describing the support as “a critical component” of convincing leadership to hold a vote.

If passed the bill would update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows the government to access 180-day old electronic communications without a warrant. Those in favor of amending the act justify the update by citing the Fourth Amendment, which affords similar protection over physical documents, and requires the government to obtain a warrant for examination.

Yoder said the leaks of NSA bulk surveillance programs by former agency contractor Edward Snowden prompted his bill, and “caused many Americans to be aware of these tactics that the government uses.”

Other lawmakers have expressed interest in adding measures like restricting access to cellphone location data, which Yoder is willing to tack on — provided it doesn’t kill the bill’s chance of getting to and passing the floor.

“The more things you add… the more challenging it becomes,” Yoder said, describing his fellow sponsors as “supportive” of “such a clear issue that has such a simple fix.”

“We plan on continuing to add co-sponsors, Democrats and Republicans, to demonstrate the overwhelming popular support for simply updating a law that’s outdated,” Polis echoed.

Government law enforcement agencies oppose the measure, which would require more time and effort to compose, justify and approve warrants compared to the current speedy process of issuing subpoenas. Tech industry giants like Google support the bill for the exact same reason.

“This common-sense reform is long overdue,” senior Google legal advisor David Lieber wrote Wednesday. “While well-intentioned when enacted in 1986, [the Electronic Communications Privacy Act] no longer reflects users’ reasonable expectations of privacy.”

Vermont Democrat and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy along with Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee proposed a similar bill last year, but it has yet to progress since it was voted out of committee.

“I’m hoping that, if we show momentum, it will give them an opportunity to move their legislation forward,” Yoder said.

Should the bill reach 290 co-sponsors (or two-thirds of the House), it could move to the floor for a vote under a suspension of the rules. Sponsors are currently amid discussions with House leadership and Virginia Republican and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte to advance the legislation.

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