Remember Mad Cow Disease, Chernobyl and the Iran-Contra Affair? They were big news in 1986, the last time that Congress passed a law intended to protect the privacy of our electronic communications. Problem is, that was five years before almost anyone had even heard of e-mail let alone owned a computer. As a result, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) has been behind the times for decades . . . along with the privacy rights of every American.
While law enforcement agencies need a court order and a warrant to search your physical mail and paper files, amazingly in 2014 they still don’t need one to access communications like your saved email, Dropbox documents, or a host of electronic messages older than six months including texts, tweets, chats, Face¬book posts and Instagram photos! (This ACLU infographic sums up the scope of the problem well.) Fortunately, legislation is finally working its way through both chambers of Congress to update ECPA and, unlike prior efforts at reform, these bills actually could become law IF the public demands action.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2013 (S. 607) by Sen. Patrick Leahy already has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. In the House, the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 1852) by Rep. Kevin Yoder has yet to be acted upon by the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. In an extraordinary showing of bipartisan support, however, almost half of all Members of the House have supported this critical bill by cosponsoring it.
Reaching the extraordinary level of 218 cosponsors (an actual majority of House members) will send a powerful signal to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and to the House’s leadership that the time for real ECPA reform has finally come. House movement of the measure also can spur the full Senate to act as well.
A relatively few Members of Congress, and the ALA members who live in their districts, hold the key to progress. If you receive an ECPA Action Alert asking your Representative in Congress to cosponsor H.R. 1852 now, please respond! It’s time to make ECPA and the Fourth Amendment fully count in our thoroughly electronic age. You can help.
- White House “Big Data” Report of May 1, 2014 Supports ECPA Reform; Administration Silence Broken
- Letter to President Obama of April 28, 2014 by ALA and 70+ Member Coalition Urging ECPA Reform Support
- Wired Magazine Opinion Piece of June 17, 2013 by Rep. Yoder, Other House Sponsors of Email Privacy Act
- Backgrounder on ECPA Reform by ALA-Affiliated Digital Due Process Coalition