Is a search warrant required for law enforcement and government to access email, texts and other electronic documents?
Shockingly, it is not. The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 was written before email became the nation’s go-to form of communication.
As a result, officials can access without warrants emails, text messages and other electronic documents that have been stored on remote servers (or, as it is called, the cloud) for at least 180 days. The 30-year-old law considers those documents abandoned and therefore fair game.
That law should have been changed long ago to treat email, texts and other documents just like old-fashioned paper documents. The privacy of Americans is being compromised by holes in the 1986 law.
Unfortunately, Congress has not been able to approve a fix to the outdated law so warrants issued by a judge would be required to access documents.
Roll Call, a news agency that covers Congress, reports the Email Privacy Act has support of legislators and tech companies. The legislation has the largest numbers of co-sponsors of any proposal this session.
Opponents of the plan told lawmakers at a House Judiciary hearing that obtaining a warrant could impede investigations.
Clearly it would slow investigations, but so what? The right to privacy must be protected.
Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., the prime sponsor of the bill along with Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said the legislation already provides a “proper balance.”
Earlier this year, Yoder made the point the government is using the technology gap in the law to breach privacy rights.
“They couldn’t kick down your door and seize the documents on your desk, but they could send a request to Google and ask for all the documents that are in your Gmail account. And I don’t think Americans believe that the Constitution ends with the invention of the Internet,” Yoder said.
Nor do tech companies. Apple, Google and Yahoo are among the companies seeking action to update the law.
“Passing legislation to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act would make it clear that the warrant standard of the U.S. Constitution applies to private digital information just as it applies to physical property,” said Linda Moore, president and CEO of TechNet, a company that represents the tech industry in lobbying Congress.
In this matter, Congress must listen, and take action. The abridgment of our rights must end.