Reasserting Our Privacy in the 21st Century

Apr 28, 2016

In order to sniff out potential terrorist attacks, the National Security Agency (NSA) monitors the metadata of millions of phone calls and other communications. Whether you are for or against this practice, there are strong cases to be made on both sides of this debate – a constant balancing act between privacy and security.

However, most Americans would agree that if an agency like the IRS were to take advantage of similar methods, it would be a clear abuse of our Constitutional right to privacy.

That’s why you may be surprised to learn that according to a nearly 30-year-old law, the government is allowed to access emails in your inbox that are more than six months old without needing to obtain a warrant.

Technology and our day-to-day reliance on it have grown dramatically in the past three decades so it’s hard to believe that the last time Congress legislated on this issue was with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 – before a large majority of Americans were even able to access the internet, let alone email.

This 20th century law applies to email accounts that are hosted on widely used third party servers such as Gmail, Yahoo and many internet service providers. Even electronic files on your phone like photos, videos and text messages that are increasingly being stored on remote servers through cloud computing would be subject to this law.

Who in the government can access this information? It’s hard to say since many agencies keep their operations and procedures under wraps, but this list may very well include the IRS, who could take advantage of existing law to investigate income or gifts that may not have shown up in your tax filing. Internal digital communication within your business or between colleagues could also be accessed.

In fact, former versions of the IRS handbook that have been made public specify that “the Fourth Amendment does not protect communications held in electronic storage, such as email messages stored on a server, because internet users do not have a reasonable expectation to privacy in such communications.”

It’s one thing to receive an audit from the IRS. It’s an entirely different matter to have a government bureaucrat snooping through your emails.

I am not a lawyer but it doesn’t take one to realize that the laws on the book covering this issue are glaringly out of date.

Your private emails should be just that: private. That’s why a vast majority of members of Congress, including myself, have united behind H.R. 699, the Email Privacy Act, to revamp and clarify the existing law on this matter. Our Constitutional rights should never be left to fester under aging laws.

This bill establishes strict guidelines for the government or law enforcement to acquire a court-issued warrant before they can look into an individual’s private email or text messages. Law enforcement should have access to a wide arrange of tools to go after criminals but open and unencumbered access to your emails and personal files should not be one of them.

Several well-intentioned pieces of legislation get stuck in congressional committees or vetoed by President Obama but the issue of privacy bridges Americans from both sides of the aisle.

Passing by an enormous margin of 419-0 this week, I hope the magnitude of support behind the Email Privacy Act will encourage the Senate and the president to swiftly take up consideration of this critical matter.

The rapid evolution of technology highlights the pressing need for a more responsive and modern congress, and I believe this legislation is a promising step in the right direction. As your elected representatives, it’s our duty to stay informed on these matters and act accordingly so that we can protect your Constitutional rights and hold those in the federal government accountable.