Our View: Surveillance snoops stymied

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 4:29 PM

Editorial Board

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is voting on a bill, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that requires law enforcement to get a warrant before it can read our personal emails and social media messages, such as Facebook communication. We’re glad to see those privacy protections close to becoming law.

However, we owe little thanks to Sen. Leahy or the U.S. Senate for the privacy protections in the bill, which has already passed the House. Fewer than two weeks ago, Leahy allowed amendments into the bill that "would have allowed over 22 agencies — including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — to access Americans’ e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook wall posts, and Twitter direct messages without a search warrant. It also would have given the FBI and Homeland Security more authority, in some circumstances, to gain full access to Internet accounts without notifying either the owner or a judge," writes Declan McCullagh, of CNET News.

In other words, law enforcement, including the Justice Department, hovered over a once pro-freedom bill — designed to toughen up a 1986 bill that only required police to swear a private communication is relevant to have access to it — and almost turned it into a law that would have lessened our privacy rights when communicating.

The reason Leahy backed away from the anti-privacy amendments in his bill is due to both a free press, which highlighted the ridiculous, and an engaged populace, which rose up and stamped the amendments down. Poor Sen. Leahy was deluged with outrage and other complaints from citizens across the nation. Two organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, FreedomWorks, organized support, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, an umbrella group of many companies and think tanks, also actively opposed the measure.

In the end, Leahy was forced back to the original intent of the bill, which he had bragged in a news release last year "provides enhanced privacy protections for American consumers by... requiring that the government obtain a search warrant."

As mentioned, this affair serves as a reminder that the surveillance snoops can be stymied, as long as the media and the people keep a close eye on our leaders, who work for us.

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