New legislation filed by Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., on April 20 would create additional legal protections for metadata generated by customers of online service providers and stored in cloud-based systems, in addition to the content of the electronic communications that they generate.

The Warrant for Metadata Act would amend the Stored Communications Act to require government authorities to obtain a search warrant for metadata associated with online service provider customer communications. Current law requires a warrant to obtain the contents of those communications, but not the metadata associated with them.

The congressman said the additional legal protection is needed because communications metadata “is incredibly important” and can reveal a “wealth of information” about service provider customers and their online communications.

“In Ukraine, for example, reporters are able to use the metadata collected from digital photos on social media – like the location a photo was taken and whether it has been manipulated – to verify the photos’ legitimacy,” Rep. Lieu said. “Organizing and analyzing metadata can offer a wealth of information for individuals and businesses to help with things like decision-making and operations.”

“But, with this wealth of information comes potential risks, especially where civil liberties are concerned,” he said.

“Right now, a governmental entity can seize an individual’s metadata stored on the cloud without needing a warrant,” Rep. Lieu said. “Current law has failed to keep up with the advancements and nuances of technology related to cloud computing.”

The bill would also eliminate limitations “on the warrant requirement for recent communications and those that have been in electronic storage for more than 180 days” and require “a governmental entity to obtain a search warrant to compel providers to disclose the content of wire or electronic communications held in electronic storage regardless of how old the communication is,” the congressman’s office said.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.