Columns

It’s Time the Law Caught Up with Technology

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Washington, February 17, 2017 | Beth Breeding (202-225-5431) | comments
When James Madison drafted the first 10 amendments of the United States Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, he had no idea how technology would shape American life or that a thing called the internet would change the way we communicate. However, Mr. Madison did know that the rights of the American people must be protected. In today’s digital age and in the midst of a technology revolution, it is important that Congress ensure that our laws still provide protections for these rights.

Thirty years ago – when personal computers were in their infancy and few had ever heard of the World Wide Web – Congress enacted the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or ECPA, to establish procedures that strike a fair balance between the privacy expectations of American citizens and the legitimate needs of law enforcement agencies. Back then, mail was sent with a postage stamp, a search engine was called a library, and “clouds” were found only in the sky. Much has changed in the last three decades, and today massive amounts of data is shared and stored online. At the same time, law enforcement agencies are increasingly dependent upon stored electronic communications content and records in their investigations.

Unfortunately, technology has outpaced ECPA’s provisions governing how law enforcement obtains electronic communications. As a result, many in Congress share my concerns that this out-of-date law provides insufficient protections for Americans’ privacy.

It’s time the law caught up with technology. Recently, the House of Representatives passed the Email Privacy Act to update the procedures governing government access to stored emails, helping to preserve Americans’ Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches and seizures of property. This bipartisan bill modernizes current law, establishing for the first time in federal law a uniform warrant requirement to acquire stored electronic communications in criminal investigations.

Reforming ECPA has been a top priority for me as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. For several years, I have worked with Members of Congress, advocacy groups, and law enforcement agencies on many complicated nuances involved in updating this law. The Email Privacy Act is a carefully-negotiated agreement that will better protect Americans’ constitutional rights and law enforcement’s ability to protect public safety and fight crime.

Given the bipartisan support for this legislation, I am hopeful the Senate will take up the measure in the 115th Congress and send it to President Trump’s desk. The Constitution protects Americans’ property from unreasonable searches and seizures, and we must ensure this principle thrives in the digital age.
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