House Judiciary Wades Into ECPA Reform
Will be a priority to update law on government access to electronic communications
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/19/2013 2:59:07 PM
The goal is to update the law to clarify the protections of emails, text, and info stored in the cloud from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government and in civil suits. But Subcommittee chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) made it clear it would have to be a balancing act between protecting privacy and allowing for law enforcement investigation of crime, though he also said that would be a "tough nut to crack." (ECPA update legislation failed to materialize out of the last Congress.) "Americans should not have to choose between privacy and the Internet," he said.
Sensenbrenner said he expected there would probably need to be a probable cause warrant standard for most communications, at least in criminal investigations.
The ECPA, which incorporates the Stored Communications Act, was passed in 1986 and deals with standard for government access to stored electronic information by communications service providers, for example whether that requires a search warrant or the lesser standard of a subpoena. It has not been updated significantly since 2001.
Among the issues are the current differing standards between how the government can get access to opened vs. unopened email, how long info must be archived for potential inspection by law enforcement and the definition of content.
Google security exec Richard Salgado pointed to some of the "complex and baffling" distinctions in ECPA reflective of the divergence between assumptions in the law and the way electronic communications has evolved. "ECPA provides that the government can compel a service provider to disclose the contents of an email that is older than 180 days with nothing more than a subpoena (and notice to the user, which can be delayed in certain circumstances). If the email is 180 days or newer, the government will need a search warrant. The Department of Justice also takes the position that a subpoena is appropriate to compel the service provider to disclose the contents of an email even if it is not older than 180 days if the user has already opened it. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected this view."
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the subcommittee, said the Act was clearly outdated, pointing out that a single email could be subject to different legal standards for access depending on whether it was being stored or awaiting storage. He pointed out that service providers are providing both a communications service and a remote storage service and that there needed to be clarity on the definition of content.
The Justice Department says that the rule should be updated to treat all stored emails similarly in terms of protections rather than treat emails 180 days old differently, and that it makes no sense to accord "lesser protection to opened emails than it gives to emails that are unopened," as is currently the case. But DOJ witness Elana Tyrangiel did not come with a lot of answers. "Acknowledging that the so-called '180-day rule' and other distinctions in the SCA no longer make sense is an important first step," she said. "The harder question is how to update those outdated rules and the statute in light of new and changing technologies while maintaining protections for privacy and adequately providing for public safety and other law enforcement imperatives."
Richard Littlehale, of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, suggested that law enforcement access to info should include timely response by service providers whatever method was established by Congress for access or protections. There is currently no requirement in a warrant that the information be made available in a timely fashion, something he would like to see changed. Littlehale also made the point that what he was talking about was not access to information, or content or communications records, but "evidence." He said law enforcement has no interest in communications records unless they advance a criminal investigation.
Rep. Louie Gomert (R-Texas), after some prodding, got Salgado to say that Google would not strike a deal with the government to flag it on communications with key terms like "Benghazi" in them, as it does for paid advertisers who bid for the privilege of targeting ads based on automatic key word searches, but Gomert seemed less than satisfied with the exchange or the answer. When Salgado said he thought the two issues were apples and oranges, Gomert filed back that he wasn't having a discussion on comparing fruits.
Gomert said he wanted to clarify that for the "simpletons" who write for the Huffington Post that he wasn't in favor of the government being able to strike such a deal with Google. Exercising a point of privilege, Sensenbrenner pointed out that his son, who has an advanced degree, writes for Huffington.
Sensenbrenner was not pleased that Tyrangiel could offer no alternative to the current 180-day requirement of storage of emails. She said data retention was a complicated and tricky subject but she was eager to discuss it further. Sensenbrenner who seemed to be eager to get an answer, said the question should not have been a surprise and advised her -- and by extension, Justice -- to come better equipped the next time. If this were a trial, he chastised, there would be some people unhappy with how unprepared you were.
Littlehale gave no definitive answer, but said it depended on how expeditiously service providers responded. If it was within a few days, records might not have to be kept as long, but if it were months, then records might need to be kept up to a year.
Full committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said that updating the ECPA would be a top priority of Judiciary Committee.
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