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Senate Moves To Update Federal Online Privacy Laws


Yesterday, the Senate took a step toward updating the federal online privacy law. It's a law that dates back to a time when most people had never heard of the Internet.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The 1986 law says investigators don't need a warrant for anything you keep online more than six months. But in practice, these days, many judges and tech companies do require warrants. That's why it was such a shock when it came out two weeks ago that the IRS has not kept up with the times: it still has a policy of not getting warrants.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy says that revelation helped the case for reform.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: When I talk to people about what the IRS did, you know, it sets up red flags everywhere.

KASTE: Leahy's committee yesterday approved a bill requiring warrants for all online content, no matter how old. That means police would have to show probable cause of a crime before snooping.

The Judiciary Committee in the House is considering a similar bill, which may also extend warrant protection to cell phone location data.

Former Justice Department official Mark Eckenwiler warned that overly broad warrant requirements might hamper investigators.

MARK ECKENWILER: There are various pieces that go into an investigation - especially at these earliest stages - when probable cause has not yet been developed. There would be significant costs to law enforcement.

KASTE: Warrant requirement bills in both chambers do make exceptions for emergencies and national security. The Senate bill is now headed to the floor.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.