Outdated Privacy Act Close to Getting an Upgrade

May 12, 2016 | Leave a Comment

By Susan Richardson, Manager/Content Strategy, Code42

050916_OutdatedPrivacyAct_BlogThe outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) may finally get a much-needed upgrade, but the reform can’t come soon enough for Microsoft, other cloud providers and privacy advocates. Here’s what you need to know:

The issues:
The ECPA was enacted in 1986, as electronic communication started to become more prevalent. The intent was to extend federal restrictions on government wiretaps from telephones to computer communications. But as we created other electronic communication devices and moved content to the cloud, the Act became outdated. The primary gripes are that it:

  • Allows government agencies to request emails more than 180 days old with just an administrative subpoena, which the agency itself can issue, vs. having to get a warrant from a judge.
  • Doesn’t require notifying affected customers when their data is being requested, giving them a chance to challenge the data demand. In fact, the Act includes a non-disclosure provision that can specifically prohibit providers from notifying customers.

The lobbying and lawsuits:
Plenty of wide-ranging groups have been advocating for ECPA reform, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Digital Due Process Coalition, the Direct Marketing Association and even the White House, in its 2014 Big Data Report.

On April 14, Microsoft added a little more weight to its argument. The company filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Justice Department, suing for the right to tell its customers when a federal agency is looking at their email. The lawsuit points out that the government’s non-disclosure secrecy requests have become the rule vs. the exception. In 18 months, Microsoft was required to maintain secrecy in 2,576 legal demands for customer data. Even more surprising, the company said, was that 68 percent of those requests had no fixed end date—meaning the company is effectively prohibited forever from telling its customers that the government has obtained their data.

The reform:
Two weeks after Microsoft filed its suit, the U.S. House voted 419-0 in favor of the Email Privacy Act, which would update the ECPA in these key ways:

  • Require government representatives to get a warrant to access messages older than 180 days from email and cloud providers.
  • Allows providers to notify affected customers when their data is being requested, unless the court grants a gag order.

The last step in the process is for the Senate to turn to the reform bill into law. While no timeline has been given, the Senate is getting a lot of pressure to act quickly.

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