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Obama administration seeks to ease data sharing with foreign governments

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice at the Diplomatic Corps Reception at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 15, 2016.

Reuters/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON The Obama administration on Friday released a legislative proposal intended to provide foreign governments with a streamlined process for asking U.S. tech companies to share email data and conduct wiretaps for criminal investigations.

The framework comes one day after a federal appeals court said the U.S. government could not compel Microsoft to turn over customer emails stored on servers outside the United States.

The proposal would require the U.S. Congress to change decades-old electronic communications law. It would also require the consent of any foreign government because it is designed to be reciprocal.

The United Kingdom is the first country the United States is seeking to enter into such a bilateral agreement with.

A technology industry group said it was encouraged by the U.S.-British talks.

“A strengthened legal framework must value privacy and human rights while ensuring law enforcement can do its important work,” Reform Government Surveillance, an industry group that represents major tech firms, said in a statement.

Some privacy advocates have been skeptical of adopting such bilateral agreements due to concerns other countries do not possess sufficient judicial oversight for warrant use.

Current agreements used to allow law enforcement access to data stored overseas are known as mutual legal assistance treaties, or MLATs.

But MLATs, which involve making a formal diplomatic request for data and having authorities in the host country obtain a warrant on behalf of the requesting country, are considered overly cumbersome by law enforcement officials who say the process often takes several months.

“The current situation is unsustainable,” Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik wrote to Vice President Joe Biden, who also holds the title of president of the U.S. Senate, in a letter proposing the new framework.

“If foreign governments cannot access data they need for legitimate law enforcement, including terrorism investigations, they may also enact laws requiring companies to store data in their territory,” Kadzik said.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Tom Brown)

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