Twenty-five years ago Friday, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that for the first time provided Americans with sweeping digital-privacy protections.
The law came at a time when e-mail was used mostly by nerdy scientists, when phones without wires hardly worked as you stepped out into the backyard, and when the World Wide Web didn’t exist. Four presidencies later, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act has aged dramatically, providing little protection for citizens from the government’s prying eyes — despite the law’s language remaining much the same.
The silver anniversary of ECPA has prompted the nation’s biggest tech companies and prominent civil liberties groups to lobby for updates to what was once the nation’s leading “privacy” legislation protecting Americans’ electronic communications from warrantless searches and seizures.
Without such a change, the police will continue to be able to get Americans’ e-mail, or their documents stored online that are more than six months old, without having to acquire a judge’s permission, as long as the authorities promise it is “relevant” to a criminal investigation.
Yet there appears to be little government willpower to alter course. Apathy and outright opposition are keeping a giant swath of Americans’ electronic communications exposed to warrantless government surveillance.
It wasn’t always that way.