Privacy laws need an update to keep the feds out of our email

Getty Images

Across the United States, the way we live is constantly evolving. With the ever-growing use of smartphones and mobile technology in almost every aspect of our lives, the changes are affecting more than just how we work, our careers or student learning. It is more than simply which mobile app is the hip, new social media app or how order a food to have delivered on a weeknight.

The changes are affecting how we live, how we interact with our relatives – both those nearby and those who live on the other side of the country or even the world. Many articles have been published on the transformative nature of the dynamic changes that technology has brought to our lives – some fantasticsome less so.

The laws and regulations dictating how businesses interact with consumers are regularly refreshed, and yet somehow the laws governing how we interact with our government – and how the government interacts with us – has been much slower to evolve. It is past time for one of those laws to evolve to match our changing society.

{mosads}Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice requested the Supreme Court review a case which will define how our Fourth Amendment Rights are — or are not — protected online. However, underlying the case is the fact that Congress needs to update the laws protecting our Right to Privacy so that our online documents, photos and private material are protected.


It seems difficult to understand, but the laws dictating how law enforcement accesses our online photos, documents or any other digital possessions was last updated in 1986. Think about how much technology has changed in the last 31 years.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was written before personal email existed, before individuals used portable computers or mobile phones and before low cost data storage and high-speed internet access made online storage of digital possessions the preferred way of life for many Americans.

Americans want their privacy to remain in place even as they publicly share more about their lives than ever. We have a reasonable expectation that the material we store in our email or in the cloud is ours. We have the expectation that these possessions retain the same exact protections as those printed copies in our homes, offices or even our bank safe deposit box.

Somehow DOJ does not share those beliefs. Congress needs to update ECPA to ensure we enjoy our Fourth Amendment rights — both from the U.S. government and from governments around the globe.

Sadly, the Justice Department proved this attitude under President Obama. Though he paid lip service to personal privacy in speeches, Obama’s DOJ chose to force companies that provide cloud computing to provide access to user files simply upon request. The matter came to a head when one company was asked to provide access to files owned by foreign citizens and residing on servers sitting in foreign countries.

Congress needs to update ECPA quickly if only to erase this horrible precedent. As disturbing as it may be for Americans to think of Justice investigators rooting through their online photos, it is worse to think of Russian or Chinese agents doing the same. And that is exactly what this action by DOJ would allow.

As our society continues to evolve into the Silicon Valley dream of all citizens existing in a perpetual state of online activity, with constant connectivity and mobile capability, it is crucially important that our laws evolve with us. Working remotely or simply storing home videos online should not mean we surrender the rights and protections provided by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Matt Mackowiak (@MattMackowiak) is the president Potomac Strategy Group, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran, and former press secretary for two U.S. senators. His national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” is produced in partnership with The Washington Times and can be found on iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

Tags ECPA Electronic Communications Privacy Act Internet privacy Matt Mackowiak Privacy Privacy of telecommunications Right to privacy Surveillance Technology

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video