Proposed Email Privacy Act Gains Support

Posted On Friday, July 20, 2018

What Happened?

Technology companies publicly voiced their support for the Email Privacy Act, a new email privacy regulation passed by the House that would require a warrant to access all email content.

The Rundown

In May, the House of Representatives approved the Email Privacy Act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) sets out the current state of the law, which does not require warrant protections to access email communications older than 180 days. Further, DOJ has interpreted the ECPA as not requiring warrants to access emails that have been opened. 

The House version of the Email Privacy Act now seeks to codify the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in Warshak v. United States, 631 F.3d 266 (6th Cir. 2010), which held that the Fourth Amendment requires the government to obtain a probable-cause warrant before accessing email content. In that case, the government directed Warshak’s email provider to preserve copies of his future emails, which it later subpoenaed. The Email Privacy Act will also extend to protect texts, notes, photos, and other private information in the cloud. 

More than 50 civil liberties organizations and technology companies filed a joint letter stating their support for the Email Privacy Act and urging that it be included in its current state in the final version of the NDAA. The letter noted that the version of the bill passed by the House already represents significant compromise, as it did not include a key provision that would have required the government to notify individual customers when it served a provider with a warrant for their information. Signatories to the letter included Amazon, Adobe, Facebook, Google, the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Library Association.

The Take-Away

The passage of the NDAA with the current version of the Email Privacy Act, while noteworthy, would likely not change current practices. As the letter notes, post-Warshak, “DOJ and FBI policies already require law enforcement officials seeking content to obtain a search warrant, and many providers will not provide their users’ content without one.” Rather, the new Act would serve to ratify Warshak and update the current state of the law, which was enacted years before the public even had access to the internet. Warshak’s codification, however, could take on more significance in light of the current administration’s opportunity to fashion a more conservative Supreme Court.