E-Mail and Letters Should Have Equal Legal Protection

Soviets Lithuania

Seems like a simple question, but law enforcement doesn’t want to accept that electronic communications have replaced handwritten documents. There shouldn’t be a distinction based solely on the medium the communication uses. If I have a safe in my house with personal documents,1 the police need a warrant to open it. Why should my email folder be any different?

The question boils down to this: Should personal information that people store online, from e-mail messages to photos to location updates, be treated the same as telephone calls or paper documents stored in a person’s home?

Right now, they often aren’t, in part because the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which governs surveillance of what people do online, was written in 1986 — well before Twitter direct messages, Facebook status updates or Foursquare check-ins.

And Web users generally do not understand when and how law enforcement can access their information, said Ryan Calo, director of the consumer privacy project at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society.

“People have no idea that with a relatively small amount of process, people can get all this information that they’ve been storing for more than 180 days,” Mr. Calo said. “If they were to go and look at a privacy policy, it would say, ‘We comply with lawful requests for your information,’ but you don’t know what that means.”

(click to continue reading Should E-Mail and Letters Have Equal Legal Protection? – NYTimes.com.)

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of the US currently has a reactionary majority, and will predictably side with the police over civil liberties, every time. There’s always hope…

So far, updates to the law have been piecemeal. For example, last month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, considering a fraud case, ruled that law enforcement cannot access e-mail messages stored online without a warrant because they are protected by the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches.

  1. which I actually don’t, but I want one to store my passport and some similar papers in case of fire or other calamity []

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