Nearly everyone, including most members of Congress and certainly most librarians, can agree that an individual’s electronic records—everything from old emails, texts, and tweets to Facebook messages, search queries, and files stored in the cloud—should be no less protected from unwarranted search and seizure than if they existed in printed form.
That’s not what the applicable federal law—the long-outdated 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)—says, however. Rather, once your electronic records are more than six months old, the authorities don’t actually have to get a judge-issued search warrant to compel your phone company or internet service provider, for example, to hand them over.
The American Library Association (ALA) and privacy-minded coalition partners from across the political spectrum have been lobbying hard for years to change that, backing bills such as the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 699) in the current Congress, which would grant full Fourth Amendment protection to all online communications as soon as they’re created.
Despite a growing number of lawmakers (including more than 70% of all House members) calling for reform, H.R. 699 has only just been scheduled for consideration next month by the House Judiciary Committee—and there’s reason to believe that opponents will try hard to weaken it.
Faced with Washington’s increasing congressional gridlock, made even worse by the upcoming 2016 elections, what are privacy advocates to do? Taking control of the issue at the state level may well be the answer. #TakeCTRL is a new nationwide privacy campaign spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). ACLU has coordinated the introduction of ECPA and other privacy reform bills in 16 states and the District of Columbia with the goal of upgrading personal, student, and employee data privacy protections across the country.
CalECPA, which was signed into California law late last year, provides an example of what’s possible nationwide. ACLU seeks to replicate that success with state ECPA bills in Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia, and by passing several other kinds of pro-privacy legislation proposed in other states.
#TakeCTRL helps privacy advocates stay informed regarding laws and practices that affect user groups and mobilizes support for updated privacy protections across the country.
With a vote now pending in the House Judiciary Committee, we haven’t given up on getting federal ECPA reform passed this year. Subscribe to District Dispatch for the latest on ALA’s privacy advocacy efforts in Congress and how you can further them as well.