The Electronic Communication Privacy Act, first passed back in 1986, is badly in need of an update. For instance, current law allows federal civil agencies to obtain any “electronic communication” older than 180 days without a warrant.
As I have written before, H.R. 699, the Email Privacy Act, would begin the updating process by requiring government agents to obtain a warrant before accessing the content of private emails, texts or other digital correspondence.
While many civil libertarians and privacy advocates rightly have focused on efforts to curtail the invasive surveillance of the National Security Agency and the FBI, there are a number of federal civil agencies that could exploit weaknesses in the outdated ECPA to invade your privacy. Below are a few such agencies, and why they might be snooping through your private emails, texts, photos and other digital correspondence.
- Securities and Exchange Commission
The SEC has been a vocal opponent of ECPA reform, defending the ability to snoop through private emails without a warrant, because catching bad guys is way more important than the Bill of Rights. So if you randomly come under questioning for alleged insider trading (as happened to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who beat the rap) now you know the answer to the question “where did they get that info?”
- Internal Revenue Service
The IRS also isn’t too keen to lose its ECPA snooping power. While it hasn’t yet been reported as an issue, it’s conceivable the IRS – which usually wants to fight loopholes — could use this loophole in the law for tax-auditing purposes. Or, say, to “check on” conservative-leaning groups for further “examination” of their nonprofit status.
The SEC and IRS have been the most vocal agencies fighting ECPA reform, but here are a few other federal civil agencies who just might enjoy being able to access your private emails and texts.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
I can only imagine the myriad ways the ATF could exploit ECPA to search through your emails without a warrant. For fun, here are a few:
- To see if you are evading the 50 percent taxes on cigarettes;
- To find out what gun clubs you are a member of;
- To learn that secret moonshine recipe you are cooking up at the still
- Federal Communications Commission
Maybe the FCC wants to make sure your electronic communication is upholding certain decency standards. No cursing!
- Environmental Protection Agency
It has become far too common for the EPA to impede on Americans’ private property rights. It isn’t too far-fetched to think the EPA might try to read your emails to collect information about your upcoming home remodel.
- Department of Education
As educators and policymakers are working to establish privacy protections of student data, it is important the Department of Education maintain students’ privacy and not use the power of ECPA to misuse students’ confidential data.
I’ll admit these last few are a bit over the top, but I hope the point isn’t lost. Federal agencies can use many different avenues to access our private communication. As more of our lives are conducted online, it is essential that our private messages, discussions and ideas be protected from unwarranted, prying eyes.