The Electronic Communications Privacy Act allows police to obtain the contents of private e-mails without getting a warrant from a judge. A group of legislators introduced a bill to the House of Representatives recently hoping to change that.
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The bill, “To amend title 18, United States Code, with respect to disclosures to governments by communications-related service providers of certain information consisting of or relating to communications, and for other purposes,” would require the police to get warrants before reading users’ e-mails in most circumstances and would also repudiate the view, advanced by the Obama administration last year, that the police can obtain information about the historical location of your cell phone without a warrant, according to an article on arstechnica.com. The new legislation is proposed by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and supported by Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas., and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., and would extend privacy protections for both e-mail and location privacy.
“Fourth Amendment protections don’t stop at the Internet,” Lofgren told Ars Technica. “Establishing a warrant standard for government access to cloud and geolocation provides Americans with the privacy protections they expect, and would enable service providers to foster greater trust with their users and international trading partners.”
The ECPA was passed in 1986. This new bill should have been passed in 1987. Because even then, before technology was what it has become today, our e-mails should have been part of our property, just like a hand-written letter in the desk drawer at home is. If the police need a warrant to search our homes for an incriminating letter, they absolutely should need one to search our private messages digitally.
The grey areas technology has given authorities far too much leeway in how they practice enforcing the law. The Patriot Act of 2001 is commonly blamed for the increase of spying on Americans. That’s another debate. The proposed bill has several exceptions that won’t supplant the government’s abilities in that regard, in fact. It would not supersede the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was amended in 2008 to allow warrantless dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international communications. Law enforcement would also be allowed to use geolocation information to provide 911 services. The police would further be allowed to engage in warrantless geolocation surveillance to deal with “conspiratorial activities threatening the national security” or “conspiratorial activities characteristic of organized crime,” the article explained.
Still, it’s a step in the right direction. The free reign of “Big Brother” needs to be reined in. Even if it comes in baby steps, as would be the case with this bill possibly becoming law, progress must be had for the people.
Technology has grown immensely since 1986, but the rights of individual users have not grown with it accordingly. It’s time that they do.
“As technology continues to evolve and improve, Congress must ensure that the Fourth Amendment rights of our citizens are protected. We live in a much different world than 1986,” Rep. Poe told Ars Technica. “It’s time for Washington to modernize this outdated legislation to catch up with the times. Technology may change, but the Constitution does not.”