from the and-now-we-wait... dept
The We the People petition to reform the ECPA in order to give email the same Fourth Amendment protection that snail mail enjoys narrowly passed the 100K signature threshold needed to (theoretically) prompt a response from the administration.
The last-minute push to hit the mark was impressive. Reminded by the post here yesterday that I hadn't actually signed the petition yet, I went and remedied that around 5 pm (CST) yesterday evening. At that point, it looked as though the petition would be an also-ran, having only gathered about 78,000 signatures with just a few hours remaining.
Needless to say, I was a bit surprised to read this morning that it had hit 100,000 signatures. The Hill rather hopefully states that the White House "must" now respond to the petition, but as we've seen in other cases, the response is either long-delayed (the Snowden petition is going on its fifth month of being ignored) or treated to an administrative pat on the head and a brief rehash of the Official Talking Points.
One would hope this one does prompt a serious response. The only reason this law hasn't been updated is because treating email 180 days old or older as "abandoned" cuts down on the requirements law enforcement and investigative agencies need to meet to access it. These entities obviously benefit heavily from the clearly outdated law and have no interest in seeing this convenient loophole in Fourth Amendment protection closed. The administration has long defended our nation's intelligence and investigative agencies, so it may have little interest in making their jobs "harder." On the other hand, this support has seen a marked decline over the past few weeks, and there are indications that some in the White House really do want to fix this, so there may be some hope yet.
On the plus side, The Hill reports that the DOJ has already weighed in on this topic.
At a House hearing in March, Elana Tyrangiel, the acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, agreed that updating ECPA has "considerable merit."This step in the right direction was unfortunately tempered by a massive step backward.
"We agree, for example, that there is no principled basis to treat email less than 180 days old differently than email more than 180 days old," she said "Similarly, it makes sense that the statute not accord lesser protection to opened emails than it gives to emails that are unopened."
But she urged lawmakers to exempt civil regulatory investigations from the warrant requirement. She explained that regulators investigate conduct that is unlawful, but not necessarily criminal. She argued that because regulators often do not have access to the warrant power, the requirement would impede critical government investigations.This "exemption" basically defeats the entire purpose of ECPA reform, and in some ways, makes things worse. It takes a little loophole in the law, which came about because of changes in technology, then widens it and puts a giant stamp of approval on it. It goes from a little loophole that violates the 4th Amendment to a big official law that violates the 4th Amendment.
On top of that, frankly, I'm of the opinion that government investigations could use a few more impediments. And it's not as if regulators can't compel production of email through subpoenas. Just because they're not pursuing criminal charges doesn't mean they're completely out of options. When you're looking to close a loophole, it's hardly beneficial to create a giant open door in its place. Civil regulatory agencies should treat the email it seeks like it does any other document. If it can't just seize these because an arbitrary amount of time has passed, then it shouldn't be able to do so with email. The rules need to be standardized, not undermined by exceptions and justifications.