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Online Privacy Law Turns a Quarter of a Century Old Today

Nicole Ozer,
Technology & Civil Liberties Director, ACLU of Northern California
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October 21, 2011

This week, our federal online privacy law turns 25. The ACLU is hosting a blog series that will address some of the many reasons why the “Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986” (ECPA) is in need of an upgrade! Spread the word using #UpdateECPA, and to learn more about your dotRights, visit .

Today, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) turns 25 years old. On October 21, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed ECPA into law. As Wired reported today on the “Aging ‘Privacy’ Law,” ECPA was passed “at a time when e-mail was used mostly by nerdy scientists, when phones without wires hardly worked as you stepped out into the backyard, and when the World Wide Web didn’t exist. Four presidencies later, [ECPA] has aged dramatically, providing little protection for citizens from the government’s prying eyes — despite the law’s language remaining much the same.”

In 1986, even though few Americans had ever made a cell phone call or sent an email, Congress understood that they had to ensure that as technology advanced, privacy rights had to keep pace. That there needed to be a law to make sure that we would not be forced to choose between using new technology and keeping our private lives, private. That we should have the same privacy rights whether we made a phone call on a new mobile phone or used our existing landline or if we sent an email through a new online services instead of a letter though the postal mail. ECPA was this law and it was a good one way back in 1986.

But, technological developments have far outpaced what anyone, including lawmakers, could have imagined in 1986. Fast forward 25 years. Now in 2011, there are more wireless devices than people in the United States, more than three-quarters of Americans use the Internet, and it is estimated that more than a hundred million Americans are on Facebook. And every time we chat, search, and connect online using all the astounding new technology developed since 1986, we leave digital footprints about who we are, where we go, and what we do and believe.

The government is taking advantage of an outdated ECPA to access this treasure trove of personal data — often without getting a search warrant. Location information from your mobile phone? The government claims that it doesn’t need to go to a judge and get a warrant to access it. Your personal email archives? Those too. What about the privacy of all those documents and photos you store in the cloud? The standard for government access to those sensitive materials isn’t clear either, because the law written in 1986 just doesn’t match the modern digital world we live in today.

It’s time to update ECPA to catch up with the technology of today and ensure that privacy keeps pace with the innovation of tomorrow. Privacy law won’t auto-update. So, please join us in demanding our dotRights. Sign the petition today and tell Congress it’s time to update ECPA!

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