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Petition: Update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act

Jonathan Kamens has started a petition to the White House to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Here’s the nut of his explanation:

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act protects the privacy of your email, requiring law-enforcement authorities to show probable cause and obtain a search warrant before they can read it. Except it doesn’t, really, because under the ECPA, any email left “on the server” for more than 180 days is considered “abandoned” under the ECPA, and any prosecutor in the country can get access to it simply by signing a letter requesting such access.

The law was written in the days when people’s email stayed on the server only until they downloaded it from there to their desktop computer over a slow modem. Nowadays, however, virtually everybody leaves their email “on the server” so that it can be accessed from anywhere on any device. So virtually everybody’s old email is accessible to law-enforcement authorities without a search warrant. This is horrendously unacceptable, and this petition calls on Congress to amend the law and on the Obama administration to support and push for such an amendment.

It turns out that I am less concerned about privacy than are most of my friends (not you, Jeff!), but this petition makes complete sense to me. The ECPA is a textbook example of a law that’s been outstripped by technology.

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