On Friday I got this email from my congressman, Rob Wittman. It left me a bit confused. Wittman is not a bad congressman, and I suppose he should have voted for the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 699). I just wonder why it was necessary.
You know that email you’ve been saving? The one from your dad … or co-worker … or best friend … or daughter? The one they thought only you would see? The one YOU thought only you would see? Well, as the law stands now, law enforcement officials could have legal access to that email without so much as a warrant.
Maybe that surprises you, or maybe it doesn’t. But the fact is that as technology has expanded, the law hasn’t. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the primary law governing email privacy, was passed in 1986—before most of us even knew that email existed. Since then, only minimal reforms have been made to the ECPA, and vulnerabilities in the law have raised significant digital privacy concerns for the public.
It’s not hard to see that the world is evolving around us. We have access to technology that didn’t exist 10 or 5 or even 2 years ago, and that’s a great thing. Technology gives us the opportunity to better ourselves and the world around us. It helps us to connect with people all around the globe in ways we never could have imagined were possible. But tech developments shouldn’t come at the cost of individual privacy and security. The way we protect information should be reflective of the way that we store and share information.
Last week, the House voted 419 to 0, with my support, in favor of the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 699), a bill that would revise the ECPA to require law enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants before gaining access to personal messages and files stored by companies like Google, Yahoo, and Dropbox. Right now, agencies can gain access to emails and other digital files more than 90 days old by issuing subpoenas to technology companies—a very low standard for gaining access to information. This legislation would require law enforcement officers to secure a judge-issued warrant before gaining access to digital information stored in the cloud.
The Email Privacy Act represents the first major update to our digital privacy laws in three decades, and it’s past time for us to make a change. The choice between privacy and technology is a false one. The Fourth Amendment, the Constitutional provision that guarantees privacy and designates it as a fundamental liberty, is strong enough to safeguard our rights in every situation. We have to make sure that our laws conform to that standard, and I believe that the Email Privacy Act takes positive steps in that direction.
Here is the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I am no legal scholar, but is there such a big a difference between snail mail and email that judges think snooping into our snail mail requires a warrant, but an email doesn’t? Don’t our presidents nominate these judges? Doesn’t our Senate consent to their appointment? Then why do we need this law?
Technology should free us to do things our ancestors never even imagined. Today we can fly. We have visited the moon. Perhaps our grandchildren will settle other planets in our solar system. Who knows? Is it possible that some day Americans will journey to distant stars? Maybe not. Some of those who rule us care about us, but we also have many perverse leaders, and we have the people who vote for them. Instead of protecting our rights and furthering our dreams, too many of those who rule us seek to spend every cent we have, and then they spy on us. They have to make certain they have us under control. How can we dream of reaching the stars when our own rulers seek to bind and enslave us?
You have a congressmen or a senator who is more interested in spending your money than he is in protecting your rights? Have you considered voting for someone else?