Legislation Would Prevent Govt Accessing Your Email Without a Warrant

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by Candice Lanier

The Fourth Amendment grants the government the right to conduct searches and seizures if it can persuade a judge it has probable cause that a crime has been committed. This has been the framework for law enforcement officials since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791.

What may come as a surprise to many is that the rules restricting the NSA are actually stricter than the rules for local police departments. In order to read individuals’ email or obtain their documents stored online, the NSA needs an order from a judge. On the other hand, local police, the DEA, and the IRS, under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), have claimed a warrant isn’t needed. ECPA reform would fix that.

Laws protecting Americans’ privacy online have not been updated since 1986, years before the Internet was widely used by the public. So, police are able to view any email older than 180 days without a warrant. Civil liberties groups argue that laws need to be overhauled in order to protect Fourth Amendment rights, which in turn would prevent police from carrying out unreasonable searches and seizures. “This is an important issue because it’s a core constitutional issue. Right now the government is using ECPA [The Electronic Communications Privacy Act] to obtain Americans’ emails without a probable cause warrant,” said Mark M. Jaycox, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The EFF is one of the 29 civil liberties organizations who launched the online advocacy campaign known as “Vanishing Rights.” The project’s goal is to raise awareness in regard to this issue and to urge Congress to overhaul the 27-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

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