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Senator introduces bill to add privacy protections to cloud data

by Phil Hornshaw

Suddenly, everyone’s trying to send your data out into the “cloud,” promising all kinds of great services.

But the cloud (a term used to refer to using Internet-based servers to store and access information, rather than using more traditional data storage devices like hard drives) brings with it a lot of risks. With all that data out there, a lot of issues pop up especially when law enforcement is concerned. Is that data protected the way other information would be if its owners had it physically in their possession?

A move in the U.S. Senate could help bring those kinds of protections to the cloud. An amendment to a 1986 law would update it to require law enforcement officials obtain search warrants in order to access cloud data and use it in criminal investigations, according to a story from SC Magazine. The amendment is authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, who penned the original law back in 1986.

Leahy’s amendment specifically protects users’ geolocation data as gathered up and stored by mobile phones. If the amendment is approved, it would require a warrant for the access of smartphone data, or other electronic communications in order to acquire location data.

That change follows Senate hearings with smartphone operating system makers Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL)  and Research In Motion (RIMM) over a recent revelation that Apple’s iPhones were cataloging and storing location data gathered using its GPS technology. While gathering the data is part of the process of using location data by apps and other smartphone services, the trouble was that the information was being stored in a relatively unprotected place on the iPhone (and also on iTunes when users synced their phones with their computers). Essentially, there was a folder on the iPhone 4 that showed everywhere the phone had ever been – data which was being used by law enforcement officials in investigations, without the requirement of any kind of special search warrant or judicial oversight.

Apple has since corrected the cataloging issue, claiming that the data was never supposed to be stored and updating the cache where it was kept to purge itself periodically. Android phones store location data too, and funnel it back to Google in order to improve services – but only if users opt-in to the tracking.

Senators during the hearings called for greater privacy protections for user data on smartphones and being bounced around the Internet, with so many users keeping Internet-connected devices with them pretty much all the time. The amendment to Leahy’s 1986 law would be a step in the right direction, although terrorism and Homeland Security considerations would still allow law enforcement to skip the warrant requirement.

The amendment also would cover police searches of emails. Current law allows law enforcement officials to access email communications that have been stored on a remote server for longer than 180 days. The proposed amendment tosses that rule, requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a search warrant for data like emails regardless of their age.