In rare unanimous move, House passes bill to protect email and cloud privacy

The Email Privacy Act would require police to get warrants to search data stored in the cloud

The U.S. House passed a bill requiring police to obtain search warrants to read email in the cloud.

The U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Credit: Elizabeth Heichler

The U.S. House of Representatives, in a rare unanimous vote, has approved a bill to strengthen privacy protections for email and other data stored in the cloud.

The Email Privacy Act would require law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered warrants to search email and other data stored with third parties for longer than six months. The House on Wednesday voted 419-0 to pass the legislation and send it to the Senate.

The bill, with 314 cosponsors in the House, would update a 30-year-old law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Some privacy advocates and tech companies have been pushing Congress to update ECPA since 2011.

A lot has changed since ECPA first passed, including user expectations of data privacy, supporters argued. Thirty years ago, few U.S. residents had email accounts, and data storage was "finite and expensive," said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican.

"In 1986, mail was sent through the U.S. Postal Service, a search engine was called a library, tweets were the sounds made by birds in the trees, and clouds were found only in the sky," he said. "It was unheard of that a commercial product would allow users to send and receive communications around the world for free and store those communications for years."

About 10 House members spoke in favor of the bill during floor debate. No one spoke against it. 

The passage of the bill is a "victory for all Americans who believe in the right to privacy," said Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat and main sponsor of the bill.

Under U.S. law, police need warrants to get their hands on paper files in a suspect's home or office and on electronic files stored on his computer or in the cloud for less than 180 days. But under ECPA, police agencies need only a subpoena, not reviewed by a judge, to demand files stored in the cloud or with other third-party providers for longer than 180 days.

The American Library Association and the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) both praised the house for passing the Email Privacy Act.

"For consumers to feel safe with cloud computing, personal data stored remotely must have the same legal protection as data on their own computer," Mark MacCarthy, SIIA's senior vice president of public policy, said in a statement. The House vote "brings us one step closer to leveling the playing field for government access to data stored in the cloud."

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