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House unanimously passes bill limiting government access to cell phone, email data

The federal government’s access to personal cell phone and email data would be restricted by legislation passed by the U.S House.

In a show of rare unity, the bill found unanimous support with a vote of 412-0. It was sponsored by Reps. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Wis.) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

Under current law, even those not suspected or tied to any crime are subject to having their emails and phone records requested by prosecutors and the requests are often made with non-disclosure orders, meaning the subject is never informed.

It comes after lawmakers made known their knowledge of millions of Americans, who were never tied or suspected of criminal behavior, having their privacy breached by what they called “out-f-control” prosecutors.

But it the practice only became suspect after it was used against members of Congress and journalists under the Obama administration. The House previously took it under consideration in 2015.

This year, Nadler, a democrat, said in a press release that “abuse of secrecy orders is not limited to Congress—schools, local governments, Fortune 500 companies, and countless others have had their data swept up by investigators looking to sidestep the basic protections afforded to Americans in criminal investigations.”

The bill, dubbed the “NDO Fairness Act,” would strengthen legislative safeguards against such uses of NDOs by prosecutors by requiring them to prove to a court that a “substantially adverse event” would be likely from failure to issue an NDO (pdf). It would require stricter scrutiny of such gag orders, and would limit them to a 30 day window, with opportunities for additional 30 day extensions as needed.

“The federal government has abused its authority to access the personal data of individuals under investigation,” Fitzgerald said in a press release. “Unfortunately, those under investigation are neither informed of the search nor given a remedy to defend themselves and their data privacy rights. This legislation would bolster privacy protections to be comparable to those in a physical office or workplace while providing a much-needed check on the federal government’s surveillance authorities.”

Nadler said of the bill, “In the 21st century, federal prosecutors no longer need to show up to your office. They just need to raid your virtual office. They do not have to subpoena journalists directly. They just need to go to the cloud. They deny American citizens, companies, and institutions their basic day in court and, instead, they gather their evidence entirely in secret.”

The bill comes as Republicans in the House mount an investigation into what they have called the “Weaponization of the Federal Government.” Republicans allege that President Joe Biden and his administration have weaponized federal law enforcement against their political enemies.

–Wire services

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