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Senate bill requires warrants for messaging, phone tracking

updated 10:35 am EDT, Wed May 18, 2011

ECPA Amendments Act would force digital warrants

A new bill in the US Senate would toughen the standards for government searches of cellphones and online data. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy's ECPA Amendments Act would require that the government get a court warrant either to track a cellphone's location or to get copies of virtually any digital messaging, including e-mail, instant messaging, or social network conversations. Extra safeguards would also be in place to protect the data stored both by carriers and on the devices themselves, including smartphones.

The act would make a handful of concessions to security officials clamoring for as much access as possible. Internet and phone providers could voluntarily give information to the government if it's directly relevant to an attack related to the network. Government agents could also temporarily delay word of their obtaining a communication record if they could show that it was a national security risk.

Traditional government privileges to getting past location info without a warrant also weren't being challenged by the proposed law.

Leahy argued that the amendments were necessary given how obsolete the original ECPA, or Electronic Communications Privacy Act, had become. It had come into effect in 1986 but has long since become "outdated," both by the huge changes in technology as well as a more terrorist-focused security drive. The ECPA hadn't taken into account issues like smartphones and social networks.

It's unclear how the Senate will take to the bill, although a Democratic majority would likely work in Leahy's favor. The amendments may rile defenders of the warrantless wiretapping that began under the George W. Bush administration.

The policy could nonetheless be the first fruits of Senate hearings on phone location data. Neither the initial hearing nor the imminent second hearing have directly hinted at government action, but it has been implied that the hearings could be the basis for action if the Senate was worried about answers from Apple and Google.

By Electronista Staff


  1. kerryb

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Aug 2001



    Lawmakers need to keep up with technology. We would be outraged if someone opened our (snail) mail and read it without a court order we should demand the same for our email and other electronic communications. Laws like this one make me proud to be a Democrat.

  1. devospice

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Aug 2000


    It'll never pass

    It's doomed because it doesn't have a catchy, overly-patriotic name like the "Defending Our Freedom Act" or something like that.

  1. Jonathan-Tanya

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Oct 2004



    Look typically Democrats tend to believe in the power of government to do good. Republicans tend to believe in the power of the individual to do good.

    But, despite the difference in rhetoric about big government vs. small government, Republicans generally do not favor limited government, in many key areas: they generally push to expand the size of government in terms of military prowess, in terms of governmental authority of law enforcement agencies, and, this is lessor known, but the history is clear: they tend to expand government benefit programs too - Ronald Reagan vastly expanded the earned-income program that directly transferred money to lower income people - beyond tax refunding to giving them money they had never paid in. George W. Bush signed the unfunded prescription drug program into law.

    So, you really have two parties of big government, and the constant waffling back and forth between the two big government parties - has left the country 14 trillion in debt so far.

    Leahy - I can't believe it, the first serious effort to limit the scope of government in a long, long time. I doubt it will pass - most Americans don't care about freedoms - I mean don't get me wrong, they love the word 'freedom' but to them it just means flag waving and patriotism. There certainly is no significant movement in america to limit the power of government to eavesdrop without warrant.

    But, I'm grateful. Thank you. What you are doing is important - if America doesn't stay off the path to totalitarianism, then we will, someday become a totalitarian state. This is an important affirmation - if it passes - of our commitment to a limited role of government in society - and other countries will take notice of our example.

  1. wisti

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Apr 2010


    It's not all good...

    TechDirt has a good write up of the good and bad of the bill.

  1. shawnde

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Apr 2008


    re: It's not all good ...

    Thanks for point that out. I was gonna mention that. Many times these new bills have a "people friendly" title or cause, but in the fine print, they actually grant more rights to the government.

    Remember, all these politicians are/were lawyers. They invented fine print, and ambiguity. They'll always use some bill as a so-called "consumer protection" measure to introduce new measures for themselves.

    I don't trust any of them.

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