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The US House of Representatives has approved legislation that requires court-ordered warrants to search email and other cloud data stored with third parties for longer than six months.
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This will offer the same privacy protections currently afforded to paper files and electronic data that is less than six months old, which may be searched only with a warrant.
Supporters are hopeful that the legislation will fare better this time around with the support of Kansas Republican representative Kevin Yoder, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.
The legislation predominantly has the backing of US privacy advocates and technology companies concerned about government surveillance powers and recent attempts to search data stored in the cloud.
However, the Email Privacy Act would reportedly not protect internet companies from searches of their overseas servers by US law enforcement agencies.
For three years, Microsoft has resisted attempts by US Department of Justice to access to emails stored on Microsoft servers in Ireland, while Google is planning to appeal against a court order to hand over emails of Gmail users stored outside of the US to the FBI, arguing that doing so will put the privacy of non-US citizens at risk.
Both cases involve warrants issued under the US Stored Communications Act, which many technology firms and privacy advocates consider outdated, particularly in light of the EU-US Privacy Shield personal data exchange agreement reached in 2016.
Microsoft and Google are among several big US technology firms that have called for surveillance reforms and campaigned for updated privacy legislation because of concerns that public loss of trust in technology will hurt their businesses.
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If approved by the US Senate, the Email Privacy Act will replace the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act that gives US government agencies access to cloud data with just a subpoena, which is subject to less judicial oversight than a warrant.
Advocates of the Email Privacy Act say the legislation is required to update laws that were passed before the existence of internet-based businesses, including cloud services.
Google said in a statement that the Email Privacy Act would “fix a constitutional flaw” in the 1986 legislation and that “while there are disagreements about other aspects of surveillance reform, there is no disagreement that emails and electronic content deserve Fourth Amendment protections”.
In 2016, Microsoft also filed a federal lawsuit against the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, saying the government’s use of the law violated the US constitution by preventing cloud service providers from notifying users that their data was being accessed by investigators.