Proposed Bill Gives NLRB And OSHA Right To Review Emails And Other Electronic Information Without Search Warrant

There is concern about a bill making its way through the Senate that would drastically change individuals’ privacy interest in their internet communications and “cloud” information. The bill, named the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2011, originally started out as offering more protection to individuals, but after law enforcement expressed its concerns about the bill, it was rewritten to allow more than 22 governmental agencies to search e-mail, Google Docs files, Facebook posts, and direct messages through Twitter. 

Other than lowering everyone’s privacy rights in this information, why would employers have any concern about the bill? The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is one of the governmental agencies expressly listed as having the power to search this electronic information without a search warrant. In addition the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would also have the warrantless subpoena power should the bill pass.  This would give the NLRB and OSHA unprecedented access into a private employer's e-mails and any other information stored in the cloud. 

Under the bill, anyone who sends email or stores information in the cloud would be given less privacy than if the information was stored on a hard drive kept in the office or home. Many companies, such as Google and Apple, who are touting new cloud services are fighting hard to protect the information individuals store in the cloud because a decrease in privacy of cloud based information would likely reduce the consumer demand for the services.

Further diminishing companies’ and individuals’ privacy rights, there has been an argument which was upheld by a federal district court in Oregon in 2009, that the government does not have to give notice to the individual or company to search e-mails or other electronic information, even when the agency has a search warrant. The court held that the notice requirements under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Fourth Amendment is satisfied when the only the internet service provider who is storing the information is served with a search warrant.

The vote on the proposed bill is scheduled for Thursday, November 29, 2012.

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