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Is the Reform of ECPA Enough to Prevent the Government From Reading Your Emails?

How private are your emails and other digital communications? Can the government go through your digital files without you knowing about it? As you may have suspected, they can, thanks to a loophole in an outdated law–a loophole that U.S. lawmakers are trying to close.

The law in question is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which was originally passed in 1986. What makes this situation rather precarious is that this 30-year old law is used to justify accessing emails today. To fully grasp how odd this is, consider how much email usage has changed during this time period, much less the technological landscape in general.

The wording of this law makes it so that any stored electronic communication (like email) that’s more than 180 days old is considered “abandoned,” and therefore, is subject to law enforcement agencies accessing it without a warrant. This presents a major problem for modern computer users that communicate primarily through electronic communication and store everything (going way further back than 180 days) in an Internet-connected database, like the cloud. Obviously, this describes pretty much everybody and the majority of organizations today.

Recently, legislative action has been enacted to try and close this loophole. CompTIA reports:

On April 13th, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed an amended version of the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 699)… The Email Privacy Act would put an end to this outdated 180 day rule and require a warrant for law enforcement to access the content of all stored communications. While the current iteration of the bill is not perfect, we were happy to see that it does not contain a carve out to the warrant requirement for civil agencies, nor does it alter ECPA’s emergency exception procedures.

The goal behind closing this loophole is to protect citizens from government overreach, as well as the service providers who store digital information for the population. As society grows hugely dependant on digital information, it’s more important than ever to update the laws that govern data usage in order to protect privacy rights.

Is all of this news to you or did you already know about the ECPA loophole? Is data privacy something that concerns you, or do you not much care if the government reads your emails? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.


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