A major threat to your privacy is sitting in the chamber of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in the form of amendments to HR 2471. Senator Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont made changes to the bill that would give more than 22 agencies the power to read your email, documents stored in the cloud and social networking messages without a search warrant. It allows the Department of Homeland Security and the FBIto delay notification by private companies to their customers that they were forced to turn over information. It also authorizes them to access internet accounts without any court review whatsoever (even after the fact) if “emergency” conditions exist.
This is the scariest piece of anti-privacy legislation that we’ve seen in a long time, and something I would expect to see in places like Belarus or Russia, not the United States of America. Following a large public outcry, Senator Leahy is backing away from these provisions, but the fact that they were even being seriously considered in the first place raises serious concerns about his judgment, and demonstrates how little of a concern privacy is for both parties (after all, it was a Republicanpresident who gave us the Patriot Act).
“Emergency powers” have been used by despots worldwide to justify serious abuses of power and human rights violations for generations. The principles of separation of powers and checks and balances are what make freedom possible and are a foundation of our Constitution for a reason. Requirements for search warrants exist to prevent abuses of executive power by forcing law enforcement officials to persuade a judge that there is some evidence of wrongdoing before they go rifling through our most private things. And when the stakes are high is exactly when judicial review over law enforcement is the most important.
As a former police officer, I have a better understanding of what probable cause means than most people. It isn’t a very high standard. It means you have evidence that a crime probably has been committed, and that the suspect was probably involved. It is not conclusive proof and it does not have to be enough to convict anyone of anything. We need to tell Congress and Senator Patrick Leahy loud and clear that if law enforcement agencies don’t have enough evidence to convince a judge they have probable cause, then they have no business reading our email or stalking us on Facebook.