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Google has told NPR news that the company requires a warrant, signed by a judge, before it discloses user emails to law enforcement. Unfortunately, the law as written today does not require warrants for stored electronic information; that's what happens when you allow the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to live on for 25 years unchanged, as it stands today. Yup, you heard that right: ECPA was written and passed before the internet existed as a force for global communication. That leaves way too much maneuvering room for companies that hold our most intimate information, even secrets, to give to law enforcement without any demonstrated reason. So it's incredibly important for companies like Google to take a firm stand on behalf of their users, to say 'no' to warrantless law enforcement snooping, and it should be applauded.
But unfortunately promises are not enough. As the law stands today, your emails don't have the same protection from the government that your snail mail letters have, even though they constitute the same basic form of written, confidential communication. Your documents stored in Apple's or Google's cloud do not have the same protections that the files in your cabinet have. This is a basic but very serious problem, because increasingly our lives are lived online, and we store and use fewer and fewer paper documents to navigate the 21st century world. We believe that if the police need probable cause and a warrant to search your apartment, they should also be required to get a warrant if they want to read your emails, see your browsing history, or get access to your direct messages on Twitter.
Google is doing its part to help make that change; the company is part of a broad based coalition working to update ECPA, to bring the law up to date to reflect how we use technology in the digital information age and to provide the necessary protections we deserve. The Digital Due Process coalition also represents Microsoft, ATT, the ACLU, EFF, Facebook, Apple, AOL, and Freedom Works. Institutions as ideologically diverse as civil liberties organizations and libertarian groups are partnering with the largest and most profitable technology companies in the United States to pass meaningful reform, enabling the most basic protections for digital communications and information stored in the 'cloud.'
So what's taking Congress so long? While Google's announcement today should be praised, and its users can breathe a sigh of relief, we cannot depend on the goodwill of corporations to decide when they will require a warrant for your personal data or when they won't. We need a law that requires this protection. Take action now to help get us there.