Lawmakers Move to Shield Americans’ E-mails From Government Snooping
Remember that e-mail you got from your significant other six months ago — the one you read, replied to, and deleted? Probably not, but if it’s still stored on a server somewhere, as it may well be, Uncle Sam thinks it’s fair game for his agents’ prying eyes — and they don’t even need to get a warrant to sneak a peek.
Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986, electronic communications left on remote servers — “in the cloud,” in today’s parlance — for more than 180 days are considered abandoned and therefore not protected by the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that government agents obtain a warrant before searching and seizing them. This might not have been so unreasonable in the era of eight-bit computers and 300-baud modems, when the cost of online time and remote e-mail storage was so high that most messages were downloaded to users’ computers for reading and storage. (The government must still get a warrant to search locally stored messages.)
Today, however, the law simply doesn’t make sense. Few people download e-mails or other electronic communications, such as text messages or private social-media posts, on a regular basis. Most are stored in the cloud for retrieval whenever, wherever, and by whatever means (desktop or laptop PC, smartphone, tablet, etc.) the parties to the communication desire. It is therefore quite unreasonable to assume that cloud messages over 180 days old have been abandoned and thus can be searched by the government on a whim.