Back in the days of DEC and Wang Computer, there was serious doubt whether California’s Route 101 or Massachusetts’ Route 128 would be at the forefront of the digital economy. My aunt immigrated to Massachusetts to stake out her part of the new digital frontier. And round about that time, when I was seven years old, is also the last time Congress passed an email privacy bill. Called the “Electronic Communications Privacy Act“, by now it might as well be called the “Ordinance Describing Rules Regarding the Transportation of Speedy Telegrams Via Means Faster Than The Horse” for all the good it does. Among other ridiculously outdated provisions, it treated holding onto your emails for more than six months as a crazy-expensive thing only crazy people would ever do, so emails older than that are considered “abandoned” like your curbside trash. Law enforcement therefore don’t need to get a warrant to search it.
Fast-forward to now, and a federal bill to solve this, the Email Privacy Act, now has more than 300 sponsors in the House. That would be more than enough to pass it if it got to the floor, and is more cosponsors than any other bill still being held up in committee. It’s being held up essentially because the SEC and FTC want a free hand to not get warrants:
In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, representatives of the SEC and FTC claimed that other other types of court orders provide a comparable standard to a warrant based on probable cause. Nothing could be further from the truth. A search warrant – the standard in the constitution – allows access to information only when there is a strong likelihood it will show evidence of criminal violations of the law. That is a high standard that applies only in a narrow class of cases. By contrast the SEC and FTC are seeking access to email whenever it is relevant to civil violations of the law – such as mistakenly filling out a tax form. That is a low standard which applies in many cases. This rule would then apply to every agency – from the IRS to the local health inspector. Agencies shouldn’t be able to highjack reform to seek a digital power grab,” said Chris Calabrese, Vice President for Policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT)
In reaction to these roadblocks, organizers at the state level, including our fellow chapters of Restore The 4th – SF Bay Area and Restore The 4th- LA, have advocated for stronger state privacy laws, and in California, they just succeeded in passing Cal-ECPA, the strongest email privacy law in the nation.
In Massachusetts, our path to Warrant Protection for Email City has resembled so far, far more the federal path than the one California just chose. Last session, a bill was reported out favorably from committee, and got dropped only on the last day of the session, amid the usual flurry of the close of business. It just came up again at this week’s Judiciary Hearing, the ACLU testified on it, and we support it too. But California has now lit the path for us to follow, and it will matter greatly whether we follow it. Massachusetts residents should not enjoy lesser protections for their emails than California residents, any more than the Sox deserve to lose to the Giants.