This article is from the In-Depth Report Technology and the Emerging Post-Privacy Era
60-Second Tech

6-Month-Old E-Mails Easy Pickings for Police

The outdated 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act considers e-mail "abandoned" and searchable if it's stored for more than 180 days on a server. Larry Greenemeier reports

Existing privacy laws are disconnected from the ways we communicate electronically today. The FBI made headlines again recently for its lobbying efforts to make the Web easier to wiretap. And Congress is trying to figure out whether a law that predates the Web by several years can protect access to your old e-mails.

The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act was mostly aimed at protecting digital messages in transit. The Act existed before the widespread use of email and of massive computer memory that could easily store decades’ worth of messages. The law thus considers information that such as e-mail “abandoned” if it’s stored for more than 180 days on a service provider’s server. If law enforcement wants access to an abandoned e-mail, it only has to claim need for an investigation.

A little good news. The Justice Department supports requiring police to get a warrant to read your e-mail. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy agrees, and is trying to get a law passed to make that official.

Legal protection would be a lot better than picking through and deleting years of forgotten messages in your personal inbox.

—Larry Greenemeier

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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