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December 1, 2012

Emails should be protectedfrom warrantless searches

NORMAN — U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, has always been a champion of openness in government and the right to privacy for individuals. He has tussled with some of the best on the right of Americans to feel safe about the government’s use of personal information.

Now, the veteran lawmaker is taking his fight to the digital age. The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Leahy, approved legislation that would require police to obtain a search warrant before they can review emails and other electronic communications such as Facebook pages and Google searches.

Digital files, Leahy argued, should have the same safeguards as paper files stored in someone’s home. Some law enforcement agencies suggested the bill could keep them from doing thorough investigations.

The bill, which should come up in the full Senate next year, updates the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act. That law was written before Facebook, Google, Yahoo and cloud computing became household terms. It requires a search warrant only for emails less than 6 months old.

Getting a warrant doesn’t seem to be hampering law enforcement. The Associated Press reports that in four midwestern states, federal law enforcement officials have been working with the warrant requirement since 2010. A federal appeals court had ruled warrantless access to emails was unconstitutional.

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