This week, Congress updated one outdated technology law, but they’ve left a more serious one languishing. While Congress has renewed the Undetectable Firearms Act, which bans plastic guns, they still have not updated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which currently permits warrantless spying on almost every file that passes through the Internet.
In the 1980s, when EPCA was passed, the government promised that all the documents you held on to were safe from snooping. A file saved on your desktop was treated like a file in your desk; it required a warrant to search and read. But a document you gave to a third party and “abandoned” for more than six months was fair game for the police or the NSA to grab and gawk at without any oversight.
Skip forward a quarter-century, and nearly all of your information is stored with third parties. The text of every email and every attachment you’ve ever sent or received (as well as all your contacts and associated metadata) lives on the servers of companies like Google and Yahoo. Every ping for the location of your iPhone may be stored on Apple’s servers. All the passages you’ve searched for inside a book, and all the comments you’ve made on your own, cloud-backed Kindle are also fair game.
The Fourth Amendment wasn’t intended to protect you only from unreasonable search and seizures of property you’ve acquired in the last six months. But Congress has been slow to bring EPCA in line with the 21st century. And, the longer they delay, the longer police, FBI and other government agents can dip into your private data without oversight.
Congress has managed to update the law to protect us from our fellow citizens by renewing restrictions on plastic weapon, but won’t protect us from overreach and assaults on our liberty by the government itself. Unlike 3D-printed guns, which are basically a novelty, warrantless searches are a weapon that is actively in use. And their very design means they are undetectable, even by the victim.
A broad coalition of activist groups and technology leaders including R Street and the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google, TechFreedom and Twitter are joining together for a day of action today, Dec. 5, to stand up for your digital Fourth Amendment rights.
You can sign the petition calling on the Obama administration to bring the law up to date. Once you’ve added your name, send the petition to your friends via email and social media. That way they’ll get a reminder to act today, and, in six months, barring reform, so will the government.