Senate Bill Creates Martial Law Over Online Accounts
November 20, 2012

New Bill In Senate Creates Martial Law Over Your Online Accounts

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

In the worst form of hypocrisy, a Senate bill went from tightening up security on your email account, to instead giving federal agencies martial law on all your Internet accounts.

Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, proposed a legislation called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2011. The original wording of the legislation makes it harder for law enforcement to peek in on your electronic conversations by restricting access via warrants.

However, law enforcement authorities seem to have decided that an Internet martial law was in order, so Leahy complied with a completely rewritten version of the bill.

With the new rewrites, more than 22 agencies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, will have access to any American's email account, Facebook account, Twitter account and other online forms of communication without the need to first get a search warrant from a judge. Agencies could even have access to your Google Docs files.

Under the rewritten bill, the FBI and Homeland Security would be able to gain full access to Internet accounts without needing to notify the owner or even a judge. The original bill not only required authorities to acquire a search warrant but also to have probable cause before reading the contents of an email or communication.

Leahy, a Democratic Senator from Vermont, said in a keynote speech at the Computers Freedom and Privacy conference in 2011 that just as search warrants are necessary for law enforcement to come into your home, so should the same be for your online accounts.

Although he boasted strong words before, Leahy seems to have not only changed his beliefs, but has gone as far as to do the opposite of what he set out to do just a year ago.

He planned a vote on the bill in September of this year but received criticism from law enforcement groups who asked him to reconsider acting on it. Leahy caved under pressure, eventually rewording the bill to give law enforcement agencies even more power and authority over your online accounts.

Not only do federal agencies gain intrusive legal authority with the proposed bill, but it will also give state and local law agencies access to Americans´ email and social media accounts without a warrant, including things stored on university networks.

Under the bill´s new parameters, companies would have to notify the law enforcement agencies of plans they have to tell their customers that their accounts have been the target of a warrant, order or subpoena.

In the real world, all law enforcement agencies need a warrant before entering your house to search for things like pictures, files or letters. However, this new rendition of the proposed legislation would give those same authorities permission to access pictures, online files and emails without those warrants.

Leahy also conveniently updated the bill to give law enforcement authorities the ability to delay notification of customers whose account have been accessed from between three days to 360 days.

The Vermont Democrat was attempting to rework a 1986 law that was created before the days of Facebook and Google, which protected the privacy of Americans who use the Internet and mobile phones. Essentially, this law protects those files stored locally on a computer but uses such convoluted wording that it made it difficult for judges to determine how to handle online security.

Leahy had hoped to clear up the 1986 law but is now doing so in a way that grants the government access to your accounts in something that resembles a cyber version of the Patriot Acts.

The Supreme Court presented a ruling earlier this year that would contradict what this law is trying to establish. The court ruled that police needed a search warrant for GPS tracking of vehicles. Another ruling by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010 requires the FBI and other law enforcements to obtain a warrant before accessing email accounts for those living in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reported last week that it will be voting on the bill November 29 at 10:00 a.m.