Day of Action to Demand Warrants for Email

On Thursday, December 5th, organizations including CDT, ACLU, EFF, Google, Twitter, and Tumblr are participating in a nationwide day of action calling for reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the law that says the government can access your email and documents in the cloud without a warrant.

ECPA is one of the Internet’s most outdated laws—it was enacted in 1986, before most people had access to a home computer or email. ECPA says that hundreds of government agencies—like the IRS, FBI, and DEA, as well as local law enforcement agencies—can access many of our stored emails, private social media messages, and documents in the cloud without getting a warrant from a judge. The law flies directly in the face of our Fourth Amendment values.

Join us in the day of action: Sign this petition telling the White House to support ECPA reform.

Tell the Government to Get a Warrant

A White House petition demanding reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to prevent undue snooping on Americans’ online communications hit the 100,000 signature benchmark, forcing a government response.

The petition calling for a review of the 1986 act, which extended government restrictions on wire taps to include transmissions of electronic data by computer, reached the required number of signatures for a White House review on its December 21st deadline.

Protect your writing in the Cloud

The snail mail in your mailbox is protected by the 4th amendment.
Your online research and writing isn’t.

Today, join PEN in a nationwide day of action calling for reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the law that allows the government to access your email and documents in the cloud without a warrant.

All writers are affected by this arcane law. Please join us by signing this petition to the White House.

How an outdated law may endanger your fourth amendment rights

ECPA was last updated in the mid-1980s and describes the lengths that government may go to in order to access private digital information. At a time when cloud computing is taking off and more and more of our daily interactions take place in the cloud, clarity of this law is essential. The government currently claims that our private information that resides in the cloud and the location information that can be accessed via our mobile phones is accessible without a warrant.

We firmly disagree! The 4th amendment reads as follows:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Vanishing Rights is a campaign to help fight for our rights that were guaranteed in the 4th amendment. Now is the time to update ECPA to ensure that we receive privacy in our electronic communications just as we do for a letter sent via the US Postal Service.

30,000 secret surveillance orders demanded annually to spy on Americans

June 6, 2012

Even without CISPA on the books, the federal government can still use antiquated legislation to leer into the personal communications of Americans. One judge, in fact, says that thousands are approved each year.

It’s been more than a quarter of a century since the US Congress authorized the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, but the incredibly outdated legislation is still used each and every day to let federal agents find out personal and private information by combing through emails, texts and any other form of online correspondence. Kade Crockford is a privacy rights coordinator with the American Civil Liberties Union and is fighting to make sure that ECPA is laid to rest.

Crockford says she was only three years old in 1986 and tells RT, “If you were my age at the time, cell phones didn’t really exist.” What was a reality, however, was ECPA. Unlike cell phones and the troves of technological updates that mobile devices have seen over the last few decades, though, ECPA remains more or less identical to its original incarnation.

When ECPA was first approved by Congress, critics couldn’t find all that much to worry about as “email” was still a subject impossible for most Americans to grasp. Down the road, however, Crockford says that advances with the Internet are creating all news reasons for computer users to be concerned.

“People didn’t use email in the way that we do now. Web chat didn’t exist. Storing our information in the digital cloud was completely unheard of. These are things that we all do now every day. We live most of our lives in the digital realm. Our banking information is all online. Increasingly out health records out online. We communicate very, very important information via email, via direct message on services like twitter, via web chat, via Skype,” says Crockford. “Congress needs to update ECPA.”


On Thursday, a panel commissioned by President Barack Obama to examine the implications of “big data” concluded that cloud and e-mail content should be constitutionally protected—a recommendation that Congress is seemingly unwilling to adopt.

The panel—which included White House counselor John Podesta, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, the President’s Science Advisor John Holdren, the President’s Economic Advisor Jeff Zients, and other senior officials—recommended that an aging law be changed to require that authorities obtain warrants to seize cloud-based content and e-mail. Such data, when it is stored on third-party servers and older than 180 days, is not constitutionally protected.

"The laws that govern protections afforded to our communications were written before e-mail, the Internet, and cloud computing came into wide use. Congress should amend ECPA [the Electronic Communications Privacy Act] to ensure the standard of protection for online, digital content is consistent with that afforded in the physical," the panel concluded.

Broad Coalition Opposes Cyber Information Sharing Act of 2014

On June 26, 2014 the Association of Research Libraries joined with thirty-four other organizations opposing the Cyber Information Sharing Act of 2014 (CISA). This broad coalition sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) expressing concerns that the bill would create a loophole in existing privacy laws and does not prevent the government from requesting “voluntary” cooperation from private companies in sharing information, including content of communications.

The letter raises a number of concerns, including threats the bill poses to whistleblowers and transparency. Additionally, with respect to specific privacy concerns, the letter notes that the bill creates a “danger of a potential end-run around the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”), the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”), the Fourth Amendment and other crucial privacy protections [which] is compounded by the potentially broad immunity conferred on sharing ‘in accordance’ with the act, and the additional absolute defense when sharing occurs in violation of the act but in ‘good faith’ reliance on the mistaken belief that the sharing is lawful.”

This letter makes several specific recommendations:

  • Ensure that DHS is the custodian of cybersecurity information voluntarily shared by the private sector, and has the authority to prevent sensitive information from being transmitted to the intelligence community and military without appropriate privacy protections;
  • Ensure that information shared is “reasonably necessary” to describe a cybersecurity threat;
  • Restrict the use of information received under the sharing authority to actual cybersecurity activities, the prosecution of cybercrimes, the protection of individuals from imminent threat of physical harm or death, or to protect children from serious threats;
  • Limit FOIA restrictions to those provided by 6 U.S.C. §§ 131-34 (2012).14
  • Require public disclosure of annual reports from relevant inspectors general describing what information is received, how it is used, who gets it and how it is treated to protect privacy.
  • Include a sunset provision in the bill keyed to these reports, which will allow the measure to expire if abuse or misuse is disclosed;
  • Allow individuals harmed by inappropriate sharing to sue the government if it intentionally or willfully violates the law.
The police may not storm the post office and intercept a letter, and they are likewise forbidden from using the phone system to make a clandestine recording of a telephone call—unless they get a warrant," Judge Danny Boggs wrote in the 98-page opinion. "It only stands to reason that, if government agents compel an [Internet service provider] to surrender the contents of a subscriber’s emails, those agents have thereby conducted a Fourth Amendment search.
—  Julia Angwin, Wall Street Journal, Secret Orders Target Email: WikiLeaks Backer’s Information Sought, on the need for ECPA reform
Yoder-Graves-Polis ECPA Reform Bill Reaches House Majority Co-Sponsorship

Today, the push for reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act reached a significant milestone as the Email Privacy Act (H.R. 1852), originally co-sponsored by Representatives Yoder, Graves, and Polis, reached 218 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives. With the majority of House Members backing this important bill, there is strong, bipartisan support to update ECPA and create a clean warrant-for-content standard.

Our association, along with a broad range of stakeholders, has long advocated for ECPA reform to meet the needs of today’s fast-growing, online environment. The House now has a unique opportunity to extend the same 4th Amendment protections enjoyed in the offline world to electronic communications and information stored online. A majority of House Members understand that these protections should not be whittled away by exceptions or carve-outs sought by civil agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which would undermine users’ reasonable expectations of privacy.

Extending civil agencies’ authority to seek users’ information from hosts and third party providers beyond existing subpoena authority puts online information and privacy at risk. Since 2010, Internet companies have stood up for their users and followed the guidelines set by the 6th Circuit in its Warshak decision, which found that the Stored Communications Act (ECPA) is unconstitutional, because it permits government access to emails without a warrant.

Given the resounding support for clean ECPA reform, we urge Chairman Goodlatte, who has long supported this effort, to move swiftly to pass H.R. 1852 out of the House Judiciary Committee.