If you thought it was just the NSA after your personal
communications and information, don’t underestimate the quest for power among
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) was
originally enacted to strengthen restrictions on government access of telephone
calls and transmissions of computer data. Of course, when it first went into effect, there was no email
and internet in the form as we know it today.
But under the current law, federal agencies are allowed to
subpoena emails that are older than 180 days.
Most people keep old emails, at least to some degree. If you keep an email that is over 180
days old and it is still stored on a third party’s server, then federal
agencies can obtain it just by submitting a written statement saying it is
necessary or relevant to an investigation. There is no judicial review required, as with a warrant.
Privacy advocates are pushing for an update to the law,
which would not allow easy access to these old emails and other information,
including information on social media websites. Many courts have ruled that private communications are
protected under the Fourth Amendment, meaning that federal agencies would have
to get a search warrant through a judge in order to access such
information. And even some members
of Congress are pushing for an update to this law.
Meanwhile, the SEC is opposing this, claiming that it can
obtain private communications through a simple subpoena. The agency is claiming it needs this
authority to do its job.
Of course, this is nothing but a power grab. The SEC is an agency that is supposed
to protect investors and ensure orderly markets. But the reality is that the SEC doesn’t stop people like
Bernie Madoff or companies like Enron.
In fact, it sometimes helps in perpetuating these scandals beyond where
they could have gone in a free market without an SEC.
If the SEC is allowed easy access to private communications
that are only 6 months old, then this would mean all federal and state agencies
have the same access. This could
include the IRS, the DEA, and the CIA.
It is not hard to imagine health boards accessing private
information. Just think of the
implications of obtaining private emails to prove that someone purposely didn’t
pay for their Obamacare insurance.
And maybe the ATF can access emails to find out who owns
guns and if they are properly registered in their state.
Some of this may sound far-fetched, but most people would
have said that a couple of years ago about the NSA.
As long as there is power to be obtained and used against
others, we should not be surprised when it happens. As long as the federal government is spending close to $4
trillion per year and is involved in virtually every aspect of our lives, then
we can expect this power to be used against us. Unfortunately, the NSA is not the only agency spying on us.