Remember when a new talk show called “Oprah” debuted, a fourth TV network called “Fox” started broadcasting, and every other headline was about the return of Halley’s Comet? No? Don’t feel badly; 1986 was so long ago that nobody else does either. That’s also how long it’s been since Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA): the principal law that controls when the government needs a search warrant to obtain the full content of our electronic communications.
You read right. As previously reported here in District Dispatch, the law protecting all of our email, texts, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts and Dropbox files was written when there was no real Internet, almost nobody used email, and the smallest mobile phone was the size of a brick. Under the circumstances, it’s profoundly disturbing — but hardly surprising — that law enforcement authorities, with few exceptions, don’t need a search warrant issued by a judge to compel any company or other institution that houses your “stuff” online to hand over your stored documents, photos, files and texts once they’re more than six months old. (This ACLU infographic lays it all out very well.)
Happily, legislation to finally update ECPA for the digital age has been building steam in Congress for several years and the legislation pending now in the House (H.R. 699) and Senate (S.356) has extraordinary support (including at this writing nearly a quarter of all Senators and almost 300 of the 435 Members of the House). On September 16, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on ECPA – the first in quite some time. While no vote on an ECPA reform bill may occur for a while yet, if your Senator is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, now would be a great time to endorse ECPA reform by sending them one of the timely tweets below:
- My email deserves just as much privacy protection as snail mail. Pls reform #ECPA now.
- I vote, but #ECPA’s older than I am; let’s overhaul it while it’s still in its 20s too.
- If we can’t rewrite #ECPA for the internet age then please correct its name to the Electronic Communication Invasion Act.
- If #ECPA were a dog it would be 197 years old now. In an internet age it might as well be. Please overhaul it now.
Maybe, just maybe, 2016 — ECPA’s 30th anniversary — could be the year that this dangerously anachronistic law finally gets the overhaul it’s needed for decades. . . with your help.