Electronic Communications Privacy Act: Until It Changes, Feds Can Read Your Emails and Cloud Files Without a Warrant

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was passed almost 30 years ago.  It's still in effect today, and because the law (18 U.S.C. § 2510 et seq.) has not been revamped to keep up with technological advances, it allows the government to snoop into all sorts of online stuff that you may assume is your private information.

The Problem: Digital Information Can Be Accessed by Police Without a Search Warrant.

Lots of things are not considered private under this privacy law - things that you may assume are protected from governmental snooping unless they get a search warrant from a judge.  Like what? Things like your files stored in Dropbox; your six-month old (or older) emails; or any chats or comments that are over 180 days old are fair game for law enforcement to access, read, and store.


They don't need a search warrant for stored digital information because of the ECPA.  Scary stuff, right?


The Solution:  Change the Law and Bring It into the 21st Century.

Federal law needs to be changed to close this privacy loophole so your online stuff (like Facebook comments or online chats) isn't exposed in ways that you may not realize is open to government eyes and this law is updated to reflect the state of today's online communications (and online storage).  It's merely a matter of updating the law to keep up with today's digital communications.

Last week, a congressman from Arizona (Representative Matt Salmon) introduced the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2015, explaining in his press release:

“The Founding Fathers learned first-hand the cost of unchecked power.  That experience, gained the hard way, offered them critical insights into how a government for and by the people ought to conduct itself.
“The Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of security from unreasonable searches of our ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects’ does not disappear because we’ve invented new ways to communicate.  Now more than ever it’s important to make sure government doesn’t trample our rights by using those same innovations to see and record every email, instant message, tweet, post, and comment we write.
"The message is simple: Get a warrant.  The same procedures law enforcement uses to investigate dangerous criminals and prevent acts of terrorism should apply to people’s digital lives—as should the same protections.”

There was also proposed Congressionsal legislation last fall that sought to update the ECPA and extend search warrant protections, etc., to digital information.  See, "Senators unveil new bill to protect emails" by Julian Hattem for The Hill.

Hopefully, the 114th Congress will be more successful here than the 113th ....

More info on the ECPA and the proposed 2015 Amendment:

1.  Full text of this bill.

2.  Follow and track the proposed amendment as it proceeds through Congress as H.R. 283.

3.  Background information provided by the ACLU on its resources page covering the ECPA.