Congress Tries, Yet Again, To Fix Outdated Electronic Privacy Laws

from the that-4th-amendment-thing dept

We've been writing about ECPA reform for ages. In case you haven't been following this, ECPA is an incredibly outdated law concerning the privacy of electronic communications. As it stands now, thanks to some oddities in the law, the government can often access your online data with little oversight (among the many oddities in the bill, it considers emails on a server for more than 180 days "abandoned" and accessible by the government without a warrant). While many politicians in Congress claim that they're in favor of ECPA reform, little ever seems to happen with it. Late last year it had looked like a deal might have been worked out whereby Congress would approve strong ECPA reform that would respect the privacy of our data, in exchange for also reforming privacy laws concerning video rental data (basically a favor to Netflix and Facebook).

Law enforcement, as always, flipped out about the ECPA reform bit, and at the very, very end of Congress, the video rental reform stuff passed while ECPA reform was left on the cutting room floor.

This week, however, ECPA reform has been brought back once again, this time in the House, by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, along with Reps. Ted Poe and Suzan DelBene. The proposed bill, called The Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act, is embedded below. It's a strong bill, meaning law enforcement folks are likely to flip out again. Among the reforms, it would set up a clear and consistent standard for requiring a warrant for government access to electronics communication. That is, it will get rid of the hodge podge of ECPA rules that change based on how old the communications are, if it's been opened, if it's a draft, etc. Now, we just get one rule, across the board, and that rule is get a warrant. It also requires (with a few exceptions) that notice be given to the user/account holder, so that people actually know when the government goes looking through their data.

In an attempt to appease law enforcement, the bill leaves in many "exceptions," that will allow law enforcement to bypass these rules in certain cases. The bill would be stronger without these exceptions, but there's no way the bill passes without something like that in there.

As you may have realized from the name, the bill also has a section dealing with "geolocation" information. This is important because there are a bunch of ongoing fights concerning the privacy of your location data (obtained via mobile phones, GPS devices and such). As we've covered here repeatedly, the courts have been ruling every which way on the legality of law enforcement accessing this kind of data, and so the bill tries to clarify that, and puts in place prohibitions on the government intercepting location info without a warrant (with, of course, a few key exceptions -- including in an emergency, if the person gives consent or if the data is already public).

It's a good bill that deserves support. While it may not be perfect, it's a hell of a lot better than what we have now. This would be a huge step up in protecting our privacy from government intrusion, which means it's going to be an uphill battle against law enforcement interests to get it passed. That said, maybe this is finally the year when all those elected officials who claim ECPA reform is important get their act together and vote to approve real reform.

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  1. icon
    Valkor (profile), 8 Mar 2013 @ 6:22pm


    How many citizens' voices does it take to counter balance one law enforcement official? If a thousand constituents said NO for every LEO that said Yes, would your rep listen to the constituents? Do we elect representatives or rulers? Congress ignores us only because we let them get away with it.

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