Fun fact: the main law protecting your online privacy rights is older than the web itself.
It's true. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act was implemented in 1986, three years before the World Wide Web was conceived in 1989. And while technology has evolved at unfathomable speeds since 1986, the ECPA remains largely unchanged.
So, how good of a job can a law do at protecting your online privacy if it was written before the web even existed? Not a very good one. In fact, the ECPA is the main reason so much of your online information can be legally accessed without a search warrant. Here’s a quick list of some of the digital information the ECPA grants the government the right to search without your consent:
- Emails and text messages over six months old
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- All private social media messages over six months old
- Search queries
- Documents stored online
The liberties granted to the government when it comes to obtaining online information concern a number of advocacy organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
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“The outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) allows the government to intercept and access a treasure trove of information about who you are, where you go, and what you do, which is being collected by cell phone providers, search engines, social networking sites, and other websites every day,” the ACLU writes on its website. “The Founding Fathers recognized that citizens in a democracy need privacy for their ‘persons, houses, papers, and effects.’ That remains as true as ever. Today's citizens deserve no less protection when their "papers and effects" are stored electronically.”
In a 2011 interview, technology author Daniel J. Solove spoke on America’s current stance on cyber security. Solove believes the dynamic is “wrongly skewed towards the security side.”
“Privacy is often cast as a right of particular individuals while security is cast as a broad social interest,” Solove said. “When privacy is balanced against security, security often wins because the well-being of the many outweighs the interests of one person. But this is a faulty way to see privacy. Privacy is a societal value ... Privacy is not only about the individual, but it involves the extent and nature of government power ... In a free society, we shouldn't have to wonder before we do anything how some bureaucrat will view it."