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The 'Outdated Law' That Gives Govt Warrantless Access to Your Online Data

Thursday is nationwide day of action to reform Electronic Communications Privacy Act

Andrea Germanos, staff writer

Image via Techdirt (See graphic below.)

It's not just the NSA's vast surveillance we should be concerned with.

Privacy advocates are calling for reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a 27-year-old law that allows government agencies like the FBI and local law enforcement warrantless access to Americans' electronic communications.

At Techdirt, Mike Masnick emphasizes that ECPA reform is "incredibly important," and, as Mark Stanley at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) writes, it's "one of the Internet’s most outdated laws."

The ACLUs Chris Calabrese explains it's

because the law governing access to our online communications was written in 1986—before the age of Facebook, Twitter, and cloud computing. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) permits government and law enforcement officials to access private online information—emails, social media accounts, photos, and even online documents—without a warrant from a judge, once it reaches that ripe old age of six months. Under that outdated law, government agents can force the service providers we're entirely dependent on for communicating—Verizon, Apple, Facebook—to turn over their customers' private data based on the government's authority alone.

This "flies directly in the face of our Fourth Amendment values," Stanley writes, and adds that

Bills to reform ECPA have gained huge support in recent months from both parties in Congress. However, legislation is now being blocked by a proposal from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is pushing for a special carve-out for regulatory agencies to get your documents from online providers without a warrant. The SEC carve-out would neuter ECPA reform.


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CDT, the ACLU and Techdirt are among a number of groups participating in a nationwide day of action on Thursday calling for ECPA reform, urging people to sign the White House petition "Reform ECPA: Tell the Government to Get a Warrant."

"There are some solid indications that if that can get over 100,000 signatures, the White House may finally be willing to move on this, despite very strong resistance from the likes of the SEC and IRS who like that they get to snoop through your emails without a warrant." writes Masnick.

Stanley adds that long past time for "this commonsense, long overdue reform to ensure our privacy rights online."

"We need President Obama to tell the SEC to back down in its demands for troubling new powers and make clear that the time for ECPA reform is now," he writes.

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This infographic created by Peter Van Valkenburgh for TechFreedom offers a primer on "What's so bad about ECPA":



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