The government should need a warrant to check your e-mails

Grover Norquist President, Americans for Tax Reform
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The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable search and seizure of our “persons, houses, papers and effects.” The government can’t open our postal mail without a warrant. It can’t search our office files. It can’t tap our telephones without going before a judge and showing probable cause to believe we are committing a crime.

But what about emails?

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was written in 1986 to protect the privacy of the comparatively few people who used email at the time by restricting the government’s power to conduct a warrantless search to emails stored with third party providers for more than 180 days. Hardly anyone had a reason or the ability to store emails that long.

Now, however, we keep emails and all kinds of personal and proprietary information online indefinitely. We store our financial records, business documents, budgets, calendars, and our most confidential communications with third party providers for years. After 180 days, the federal government can access all of it without a warrant. The ECPA, originally enacted to protect our privacy, now poses a direct threat to our privacy. Its original intent must be restored.

Cloud computing is the most important technological development in the last several years, and an engine of innovation and economic growth. Businesses all over the world are using cloud-based services to lower their information management costs and improve the security of their data. By the end of the decade, the global cloud market is expected to reach over $240 billion.

But as Internet use has increased exponentially, so, too, have the government’s requests for consumer data stored in the cloud.

Microsoft is on pace to receive almost 16,000 requests for data in 2013 from law enforcement agencies, a 31 percent increase over 2012. Google recently reported that the government issued nearly 11,000 requests for user information during the first half of 2013. That’s an increase of over 200 percent since 2009. And that only represents the government requests providers are allowed to discuss. The government forbids companies to publicize requests for information that were issued for national security reasons.

Bipartisan legislation to reform ECPA is pending in both houses of Congress. It would require the government to obtain a warrant before it can access the private property we store online just as it would to search our homes.

Some government agencies, including the SEC and the IRS, are demanding they be exempted from these reforms. That would undermine the purpose of the reforms, and leave us stuck with an antiquated law that doesn’t reflect today’s reality. These exemptions would further erode our privacy protections, rather than bring those protections in line with the Fourth Amendment.

This assault on our online privacy rights has brought together groups from across the political spectrum — Americans for Tax Reform and Heritage Action for America have joined with the Americans Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology to call on Congress and the Obama administration to modernize our outdated privacy laws. Together we are launching a National Day of Action on December 5 to strengthen our online privacy rights. We urge all Americans to sign our petition to send a strong signal to the White House: the government must keep out of our private online communications.