SAN FRANCISCO — Digital privacy laws in the United States just got one step closer to the 21st century.
A Senate committee on Thursday backed privacy protections that would require the government to obtain a search warrant before secretly gaining access to email and other electronic communications.
The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act was written before the Web was born and long before Americans started sending, receiving and storing so much of their personal communications and documents on the Web.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D.Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and the law's original author, is now trying to ensure that the government needs to prove probable cause before rummaging through it all. Leahy said he was concerned about growing intrusion into Americans' private lives.
"This is an important step forward," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Congress is right to want to update law. Technology has changed, business practices have changed, and how people keep information has changed, which are all good reasons to modernize privacy law."
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Digital privacy found itself in the spotlight after CIA Director David Petraeus resigned over an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Privacy watchdogs asked: If the director of the CIA cannot keep the FBI from secretly rifling through his private Gmail account, what protections do ordinary citizens have?
Under the privacy provision that Leahy tucked into a bill, authorities would have to get a search warrant to obtain emails and other communications that are more than 180 days old, amending the 1986 law.
"We think that a search of your inbox deserves the same protection as a search of your house," said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.
It's unclear whether the House will finish considering the bill this year. Law enforcement agencies, Internet companies and privacy advocates have all been poring over the language in the bill.
Technology companies including Google, Microsoft and AT&T are lobbying Congress to require search warrants. The Internet Assn. released a statement praising the committee for making "significant changes" based on its recommendations, and said it supports "reform moving forward."
Requests from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies for access to users' personal information routinely flood companies like Google. Law enforcement says such requests are routine and necessary to fight crime and terrorism. The Justice Department has expressed concern that a requirement to obtain a warrant could slow investigations.
Many Americans only became aware of authorities' largely unfettered ability to gain access to their electronic communications during the scandal that engulfed Petraeus and others, none of whom were the intended target of the original investigation.
"Clearly that renewed debate about the importance of online privacy," Rotenberg said.
What began as a cyberstalking investigation over half a dozen anonymous emails that accused Jill Kelley, a Tampa, Fla., woman, of being inappropriately flirtatious with Petraeus led to his resignation and also ensnared Gen. John R. Allen, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, who allegedly sent "inappropriate communication" to Kelley.
"It's one of those legal issues that surprises people," Calabrese said. "They think they have more privacy protection than they do. Then they want it fixed."