Today millions of Americans will file their taxes with the federal government. But can the IRS be trusted with your personal information?
The answer may surprise you. Almost exactly a year ago, the IRS got caught snooping when the agency asserted its authority to read Americans’ emails without a warrant. Not only that, according to internal documents the IRS believed that Americans have “generally no privacy” when it comes to their online communications, such as emails and Facebook messages.
This offered a huge wake-up call – that our Fourth Amendment right to be “to be secure in [our] persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure” did not extend to online communications.
That’s because of an outdated federal law, passed in 1986, called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which sets standards for government access to online information. It says that the government can read our emails and anything we store online longer than 180 days without a warrant. Instead, government agencies can gain access to our sensitive information through a subpoena – enabling agencies like the IRS read our emails and highly personal documents online without ever seeking approval from a judge.
In 1986, when ECPA was written, cloud computing and social media were years away from existence. But today, Americans keep emails indefinitely and store all kinds of information over the Internet, from pictures to calendars to financial records. The current law simply doesn’t meet the demands of the digital world we live in today.
The good news is that the movement to reform ECPA is gaining momentum in Congress. Senator Mike Lee has joined forces with Senator Patrick Leahy in the Senate to require that the government get a warrant to access private online communications. Companion legislation introduced in the House by Representative Kevin Yoder and Representative Jared Polis has 200 hundred co-sponsors, and will certainly pass if brought to the floor for action. These bills enjoy broad support on both sides of the aisle. However, the legislation is being held up by government agencies that want to keep the status quo of warrantless snooping.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has put pressure on the Senate and the administration to keep this important regulatory update at bay. The SEC has been offering theoretical scare tactics to senatorial staffers to keep the bill from passing by unanimous consent, and the White House has not responded to the pro-ECPA Reform petition with well over 100,000 signatures in favor of this legislative update. However, the White House has found the time to respond to the equally important Death Star petition.
Americans are increasingly concerned about their privacy and rightfully so. That’s why on this Tax Day, we renew our call to reform ECPA and keep the government out of our private online communications.