Government May Soon Need a Warrant to Access Your Old Emails

The new Email Privacy Act seeks to close a decades-old loophole. Brian Snyder/Reuters

The U.S. government may soon need a warrant to access your old emails, thanks to a bill that seeks to close a decades-old loophole that was considered on Tuesday at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

Under current U.S. law, the government can issue subpoenas to compel Internet service providers, like Google and Yahoo, to hand over emails more than 180 days old, while newer content requires a warrant. This is the result of a lingering loophole from the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was passed when online storage was sparse and an email that hadn't been downloaded or deleted in that time was considered abandoned.

The new Email Privacy Act would require the government to obtain a warrant to access old emails, except in terrorism cases.

It is largely accepted that the nearly 30-year-old federal law is outdated, and lawmakers have been trying to modernize it for years.

"When cur­rent law af­fords more pro­tec­tions for a let­ter in a fil­ing cab­in­et than an email on a serv­er," Representative Su­z­an Del­Bene of Washington, a co-sponsor of the bill, said at the hearing Tuesday, "it's clear our policies are out­dated."

Now support for the bill has crossed party lines, as more than 300 House members have signed on as co-sponsors, constituting a majority of the body. Yet despite this wide, bipartisan support, the bill has yet to reach a vote.

The reason, according to the National Journal, is clear: Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the committee's chairman, isn't backing the bill yet and is blocking it from going through.

"It's important that our laws keep pace with ever-evolving technologies so that we protect our constitutional rights in today's digital age," Goodlatte said in a statement. "It's also imperative that law enforcement has a workable law to conduct investigations so that it can protect our communities."