Senator Patrick Leahy’s Bill Requires Warrants for Phone Tracking

Posted by at 10:27 am on May 18, 2011

A new bill in the US Senate would toughen the standards for government searches of cellphones and online data. Democrat 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 It had come into effect in 1986 but has long since become “outdated,” both by the huge changes in technology as well as a more terrorist-focused security drive.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 Democrat majority would likely work in Leahy’s favor. The amendments may rile defenders of the warrantless wiretapping that began under the Bush Jr. 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.

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