It was a big win for us, even if it was only the first step in the process of reforming privacy law to keep the government out of our inboxes. So we’re dedicating this EFFector to the battle to reform outdated privacy law: what the government can get, what the law ought to be, and what we’re doing to fix the gaping loopholes that leave users vulnerable to government snooping.
The Fourth Amendment and Electronic Privacy
The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable government searches and seizures. In practical terms, this means that law enforcement has to get a warrant — demonstrating to a judge that it has probable cause to believe it will find evidence of a crime — in order to search a place or seize an item. In deciding whether the Fourth Amendment applies, courts always look to see whether people have both a subjective expectation of privacy in the place to be searched, and whether society would recognize that expectation of privacy as reasonable. The Supreme Court made this point clear in a landmark 1967 case, Katz v. United States, when it ruled that a warrantless wiretap of a public payphone violated the Fourth Amendment.
The Third Party Doctrine, or How the Supreme Court Got Us Into This Mess
In 1979, the Supreme Court created a crack in our Fourth Amendment protections. In Smith v. Maryland, the Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment didn’t protect the privacy of the numbers we dialed on our phones because we had voluntarily shared those numbers with the phone company when we dialed them. This principle — known as the Third Party Doctrine — basically suggests that when we share data with a communications service provider like a telephone company or an email provider, we know our data is being handed to someone else and so we can’t reasonably expect it to be private anymore.
The government took this small opening created by Smith v. Maryland and blew it wide open. It argued that this narrow 1979 decision about phone dialing applied to the vast amount of data we now share with online service providers — everything from email to cell phone location records to social media. This is bogus and dangerous. When we hand an email message to Gmail to deliver on our behalf, we do so with an intention that our private communications will be respected and kept in strict confidence, and that no human being or computer will review the message other than the intended recipient. But the government argues that because we handed our communications to a service provider, the Fourth Amendment doesn’t require them to
get a warrant before snooping around our inbox.
Luckily, the courts are beginning to agree with us. In a leading case where EFF participated as amicus, United States v. Warshak, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with us that people had a reasonable expectation of privacy in their email, even if it is stored with a service provider, and therefore the government needed a search warrant to access it. And in the recent Supreme Court case, United States v. Jones, Justice Sotomayor said that she thought the Third Party Doctrine was outdated, while she and four other Justices — including Justice Alito — raised concerns about the information gathered by our
The Eighties Were Good for a Lot of Things — But Not Sustainable Email Privacy Law
It’s not just the Constitution, however. Congress has made clear that certain forms of data are protected by federal statute as well. Following the Katz decision, Congress passed the Wiretap Act in 1968, supplementing the strong Fourth Amendment privacy protections in phone conversations by enacting a comprehensive set of federal statutes. These statutes were designed to ensure that law enforcement has a compelling reason before intercepting phone calls.
And as electronic communication started to become more prevalent, Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) in 1986 that somewhat improved the privacy rights around certain electronic communications. But as it reflects the technology of 1986, ECPA has aged poorly. It doesn’t address documents stored in the cloud, information revealing our personal associations, or the vast quantities of location data our mobile devices collect on us everyday. And, as a result of loopholes in the law, the Department of Justice, citing ECPA, has argued that it has a right to access emails without a warrant as soon as they are 180 days old, or have been opened and left on the server.
We think that 180-day limit and a distinction between opened and unopened email is arbitrary and wrong. As the Washington Post said in an editorial earlier this week, “If you left a letter on your desk for 180 days, you wouldn’t imagine that the police could then swoop in and read it without your permission, or a judge’s.”
That’s why this week’s vote was so important: it was a critical first step in updating ECPA to evolve with the modern technologies we use today, and to close archaic loopholes that give government too much access with not enough judicial oversight.
What EFF and Activists Like You Are Doing
We’re taking a two-prong approach.
First, we’re fighting for the Fourth Amendment in the courts. We practice impact litigation, taking on clients pro-bono in cases where we believe we can create positive legal precedent around digital privacy and government surveillance. We also submit amicus briefs in cases where we don’t have a direct client, such as in the Warshak and Jones cases noted above. In Warshak we argued that the government could only access emails stored on an ISP with a search warrant, notwithstanding the third party doctrine. And in Jones, we argued the government’s attachment of a GPS tracking device to a car for 28 days was a Fourth Amendment “search,” meaning a warrant was required. The Court agreed with us in both cases, and
as a result privacy protections are stronger now than in the past. And we’ve filed many more amicus briefs this past year, arguing for a search warrant requirement in cases involving cell phone location records [PDF], GPS devices, and home video surveillance.
Second, we’re creating a movement of engaged Internet users and rallying them to demand the government stay out of our email. Yesterday’s win was a result of the tens of thousands of concerned individuals who signed our petition to Congress calling for ECPA reform and who spoke out in other ways. We’re also teaming up with advocacy groups, web companies, start-ups, and venture capitalists in demanding ECPA reform through the Digital Due Process coalition. And we recently joined other advocacy groups in launching VanishingRights.com.
What aren’t we doing? Compromising. Unfortunately often the pressure in DC inside politics is to trade off one important right against another. We don’t think that’s EFF’s role. Instead, we’re advocating for what’s best for the Internet and Internet users, and while we are flexible, we aren’t willing to horse trade with your privacy and due process.
Want to read more about ECPA and our work to reform it? Check out these links:
Take action: Don’t let privacy law get stuck in 1986
Attempt to Modernize Digital Privacy Law Passes the Senate Judiciary Committee
ECPA and the Mire of DC Politics: We Shouldn’t Have to Trade Video Privacy to Get Common-Sense Protections of our Email
Don’t be a Petraeus: A Tutorial on Anonymous Email Accounts
Reform to Require Warrant for Private Online Messages Up for Vote, but Down on Privacy
When Will Our Email Betray Us? An Email Privacy Primer in Light of the Petraeus Saga