Leahy Introduces Privacy Update Bill

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced a bill that would prevent companies from voluntarily sharing web surfers geolocation information with the government.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) Amendments Act, an update of Leahy's 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, requires the government generally to get a warrant or court order in order to get access to that and other sensitive online information. There are some waivers for emergencies, imminent danger, and national security.

The Justice Department last week, in rolling out the administration's new cybersecurity plans, was emphasizing the need for law enforcement to get access to online info to pursue cybercriminals. But Leahy wants to make sure that legal protections from government overreach keep pace with the digital age.

The bill also requires a search warrant for government searches of e-mails and other electronic communications, with a requirement that the government notify the person whose e-mail contents were divulged, though allowing for a delay in that notification--by court order-- in special circumstances including national security.

"Since the Electronic Communications Privacy Act was first enacted in 1986, ECPA has been one of our nation's premiere privacy laws," said Leahy in announcing the bill. "But, today, this law is significantly outdated and out-paced by rapid changes in technology and the changing mission of our law enforcement agencies after September 11.  Updating this law to reflect the realities of our time is essential to ensuring that our federal privacy laws keep pace with new technologies and the new threats to our security."

Like the administration's cybersecurity legislative recommendations outlined to reporters last week, the Leahy bill would allow for ISPs to share information with the government on cyber attacks, with protections for the privacy of that information and of civil liberties.

Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has long been concerned about the balance of privacy protections vs. government access to information, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which prompted the PATRIOT Act expansion of the government's investigative powers in the interests of/under the rubric of national security.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.