Bill Would Make It Harder For Cops To Read Your Email

How much privacy should you have online, even with nominally private information such as email? Enough to be protected under the fourth amendment, says Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California.

The fourth amendment ensures that any search and seizure needs to be backed by a warrant, and a warrant can only be obtained with probable cause. Lofgren proposed a bill on Thursday that would force police to obtain a warrant before they can rifle through your emails and cellphone for evidence and location history, which they can do freely now in an investigation.

An example of the government's reach and freedom to track a user's private information comes from last year, when the FBI managed to figure out that Gen. David Petraeus was having an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Broadwell sent threatening emails to Jill Kelley, whom she regarded as a romantic rival.

The bureau tracked her down by finding out which locations the emails were sent from, such as hotels, matching names from the locations and digging into the computer archives to find out which accounts had been logged in through them. By reading through Broadwell's emails, the FBI found that she was exchanging racy emails with Gen. Petraeus.

All of that information was obtained through a subpoena, but the amount of information extracted and the private nature of the exchange should, in any other context, have required a warrant.

"Fourth Amendment protections don’t stop at the Internet," Lofgren said in a statement to Ars Technica. "Establishing a warrant standard for government access to cloud and geolocation provides Americans with the privacy protections they expect, and would enable service providers to foster greater trust with their users and international trading partners."

The bill comes with some exceptions, such as warrantless access to geological location in order to respond to 911 calls, and it would not override the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, amended in 2008 to track Americans' international correspondence. Police would also be able to investigate without a warrant for activity they believe could threaten national security or organized crime.

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