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Bipartisan group slams U.S. SEC for resisting email privacy reform

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission logo adorns an office door at the SEC headquarters in Washington, June 24, 2011. REUTERS/Jonatha
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission logo adorns an office door at the SEC headquarters in Washington, June 24, 2011. REUTERS/Jonatha

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A coalition of liberals and conservatives is lashing out at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for pushing back against legislation that would force government agencies to get warrants before they access the email of people under investigation.

The group, Digital 4th, on Wednesday launched www.notwithoutawarrant.com, a website urging the public to lobby the White House to support sweeping changes to federal privacy laws proposed in Congress in 2013.

In a conference call with reporters, the group singled out the SEC for stalling the reforms. It also called on President Barack Obama to respond to a petition with more than 100,000 signatures in support of the bill, saying the SEC's opposition has caused the White House to ignore a groundswell of support.

"We do believe that the SEC and the other administrative agencies have been a major stumbling block to passing this legislation," said Chris Calabrese, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, a member of Digital 4th.

The White House did not have a comment on when or how it would respond to the petition.

"We continue to believe the Electronic Communications Privacy Act should be updated, and we look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this important issue," White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said.

In a statement Wednesday, SEC Enforcement Director Andrew Ceresney said the legislation in its current form is not workable.

"Civil law enforcement agencies like the SEC aren't able to obtain the search warrants that the proposed legislation would require," he said. "Preserving access to evidence through (Internet service providers) for the SEC and other civil law enforcement agencies is critical to protect the American public from wrongdoers."

Currently, government investigators can access certain emails with a subpoena, which has a lower legal threshold than a warrant because it does not involve a judge and is therefore easier to obtain.

But technology companies, including Google Inc , have refused in recent years to disclose old messages without a warrant, as privacy advocates say digital messages should not be treated differently than physical private communication.

The issue intensified last year when Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, leaked classified documents that revealed the government was broadly monitoring the telephone and Internet data of Americans.

Lawmakers, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, sought to make it more difficult for government investigators to obtain Americans' email information through an update to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

In 2013, the measure cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, and a companion bill with 200 co-sponsors was introduced in the House of Representatives. But it is unclear whether Congress will pass the bill in a busy election year.

SEC Chair Mary Jo White previously raised concerns about both the bill and the impact of a 2010 ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that found the Justice Department's use of a subpoena to obtain emails directly from internet service providers violated Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches.

In a letter last year, she said the ruling had a negative effect on the commission's enforcement powers. That is because subpoenaing individuals directly for electronic records, as opposed to internet providers, gives people the ability to delete or withhold crucial information.

White warned that the bill would codify the court's ruling, and urged lawmakers to strike a better balance by allowing the SEC to still subpoena internet providers while satisfying certain standards comparable to those that govern criminal warrants.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Karey Van Hall, Andre Grenon and Andrew Hay)

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