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We’ve witnessed an historic moment in Washington, D.C. With 218 co-sponsors of H.R. 1852, the “Email Privacy Act,” there is now majority support in the House of Representatives for updating digital communications privacy for the 21st Century.
Why is this important? Because right now, the digital information we store in the cloud on computers owned by companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Yahoo do not have the same constitutional protections as snail mail, documents in your home, or data on any of your digital devices. If the federal government wants to search through your information stored in the cloud it doesn’t need a warrant.
This is how mixed up it’s gotten. If the government wants to peek at what’s on your smartphone it would need probable cause and a warrant, but it wouldn’t need one if copies of the same information were stored on Dropbox.
That doesn’t make sense.
The problem is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the law covering private electronic communications, hasn’t been updated since President Reagan was in office. Back then, only college students and users of electronic bulletin board (remember those?) knew what e-mail was. It was a different communications world.
Federal law has to be adapted to keep up with technological changes. The White House acknowledged this in its recent “Big Data” report:
ECPA was originally passed in 1986. It has served to protect the privacy of individuals’ stored communications. But with time, some of the lines drawn by the statute have become outdated and no longer reflect ways in which we use technology today.
It goes on to state:
Email, text messaging, and other private digital communications have become the principal means of personal correspondence and the cloud is increasingly used to store individuals’ files. They should receive commensurate protections.
The Email Privacy Act, drafted by Reps. Kevin Yoder (R-Kans.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.), and Tom Graves (R-GA), will update federal law to grant information stored in the cloud the same constitutional protections as in the physical world.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Judiciary Committee Chairman, stated last year that updating ECPA was a priority. With majority support in the House, now is the time to do it by moving the Email Privacy Act through his committee so Congress can update federal law for the 21st Century.
This could be a rare moment when Washington, D.C. can move beyond the gridlock and accomplish something.