In 1929, Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson famously closed down U.S. counterintelligence operations in the years after World War I saying, "Gentlemen don't read each other's mail."
Well, times have certainly changed. According to C/NET, a bill under consideration in the U.S. Senate would permit agencies of the federal government to read your E-mail and other forms of electronic communications without a warrant.
"A Senate proposal touted as protecting Americans' e-mail privacy has been quietly rewritten, giving government agencies more surveillance power than they possess under current law," C/NET reported Monday.
According to the website, which focuses on various aspects of technology and technology policy, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has taken a piece of legislation and "dramatically reshaped" it to give law enforcement and a veritable alphabet soup of federal agencies the ability to inspect Americans' E-mails without a warrant.
This represents a major shift in Democratic thinking, given the almost unanimous uproar in which they engaged once the Bush administration's use of so-called "warrantless wiretaps" to wage the war on terror was revealed in a series of media leaks.
The bill, which is scheduled for a vote in committee the week after Thanksgiving, would now, according to C/NET's Declan McCullagh:
- Grants warrantless access to Americans' electronic correspondence to over 22 federal agencies. Only a subpoena is required, not a search warrant signed by a judge based on probable cause.
- Permits state and local law enforcement to warrantlessly access Americans' correspondence stored on systems not offered "to the public," including university networks.
- Authorizes any law enforcement agency to access accounts without a warrant -- or subsequent court review -- if they claim "emergency" situations exist.
- Says providers "shall notify" law enforcement in advance of any plans to tell their customers that they've been the target of a warrant, order, or subpoena.
Interestingly, the ability to access this data is, under Leahy's bill, being given to agencies outside of traditional law enforcement including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, the Postal Regulatory Commission, and the Federal Trade Commission, among others.
It's an odd assortment of agencies, leaving fair-minded people to wonder just what kind of fishing expeditions they have in mind once they can "sneak a peek" at your E-mail, your Google documents, your Tweets, and your posts on Facebook.
America is still writing the rules of the road for the digital era but it is unlikely that people will sit still for this kind of gross invasion of their privacy. Time and again people have been tripped up by the content of their emails, Gen. David Petraeus being the latest example. But Petraeus was a federal official, not a private citizen. What the Leahy bill purports to do takes a serious whack at the presumption of innocence that is integral to the U.S Constitution and the American system.
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