There are specific ideas for reform out there, though. The Digital Due Process Coalition, of which Google is a member, supports the idea that law enforcement should have access to electronic communications “only with a search warrant issued based on probable cause.” Same for the location information that cellphones are now constantly collecting. The coalition also wants the government to jump through more hoops before providers have to hand over information like the contents of “to” and “from” email fields. The ACLU wants the same reporting requirements that apply to wiretaps to apply to electronic surveillance requests as well as a prohibition on using illegally obtained electronic information in court.
As the bill works its way through Congress, though, this push for reform will face off against pressure from law enforcement to retain as much legal wiggle room as possible. Groups that push for Internet privacy think the Leahy-Lee bill released this week is a good start: The ACLU said in a statement that it supports the bill, and the Center for Democracy and Technology called Leahy and Lee a “Dream Team.” The bill eliminates the distinction between emails older and younger than 180 days and requires a warrant for government agencies to obtain emails and other communications from service providers. But Leahy started out with a very similar bill last session and faced pressure from law enforcement to include exceptions for a host of government agencies to access emails, Google Docs, and other communications without a warrant. It’s always difficult for legislators to make it harder for law enforcement officials to do their jobs—even if there’s broad agreement that rules that they’re currently operating under are as outdated as eight-track tapes.
Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.