Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler announced today that she has cosponsored legislation that would extend protections relating to citizen's private e-mail and online communication. H.R. 1852, the Email Privacy Act, would extend the same privacy protections to electronic communications that exist for hard mail and other personal, paper documents. Under this bipartisan bill, a government agency would not be able to access a U.S. citizen's emails without a court-ordered search warrant.
Federal agencies have stated that they don't believe private citizens' emails and electronic messages should be protected, with the IRS saying that Americans "do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in (online) communications." Such communication would include emails, text messages, private or protected messages on Facebook and Twitter, and other electronic communications federal agencies could obtain from third party service providers.
Under current law, government and law enforcement agencies can obtain emails more than 6 months old from internet service providers without a judge's approval. The Email Privacy Act updates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was passed in 1986, to remove this time limitation. Government agencies would be required to obtain a search warrant no matter how old the communication.
"Whether their communications are on their desk at home or in the cloud, individuals have a right to privacy under the Constitution," said Jaime. "Given recent unnerving revelations such as the targeting of groups based on their political beliefs and massive collection of individual phone records, citizens are rightly demanding greater assurances that their privacy will be respected by the federal government -- and this bill is a good start."
In a congressional hearing on February 26 in Washington, DC, Jaime questioned the Commissioner of the IRS over the agency's treatment of private citizens and the information they keep online. You can watch video of that hearing here.
"How we communicate with one another is rapidly evolving, so Congress must work to protect Americans' rights to privacy regardless of the medium. Verbal assurances from federal bureaucrats simply aren't adequate -- we need the protection of clear and explicit law," continued Jaime. "I'll continue exploring my legislative options for safeguarding individuals and their privacy on social media and other emerging means of communication."