February 14, 2016

House panel examines electronic privacy law

The House Judiciary Subcommittee is taking up the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that is applied to modern internet communication. Critics of ECPA in recent years say the law doesn’t do enough to address how people communicate in the digital age.

Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menomonee Falls) said times have changed since the law was enacted: “In 1986, if you wanted privacy you might keep a personal document in a filing cabinet instead of posted on a cork bulletin. Today, you would probably save the same document behind a password in a Google account rather than posted on your Facebook wall.”

Despite these advancements, the Wisconsin Congressman said “our expectations of privacy haven’t changed.” 

The hearing focused on contents of private email and how it may relate to constitutional considerations under the 4th amendment.

Testimony in today’s hearing came from legal experts and an information security director at Google.

UPDATE: Rep. Sensenbrenner’s office sent out a statement clarifying remarks he made during the hearing.

“I have long opposed data retention and do not believe that any ECPA reform package should include such a mandate.  Data ‘retention’ requires a provider to retain information about the Internet use of all of its customers.  A data retention mandate raises privacy concerns because it affects all users, not just bad actors.

“By contrast, I support a far more targeted approach, data preservation, which is already found in current law.  The law requires providers to preserve data about the Internet use of a particular subscriber when law enforcement has evidence of wrongdoing.  Current law allows for a retention period of 90 days, renewable for an additional 90-days.  At today’s hearing, I was inquiring as to whether extending this 180 preservation requirement would be useful to law enforcement.  I still believe that the more cumbersome proposals for data retention belong ‘in the dustbin of history.’”

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