While we would like to think of the internet as a playground, where we can freely post ideas, opinions, and share information from the safety, security, and privacy behind our monitors, the United States federal government says otherwise.
Even before the creation of the internet as we know it today, the United States government has issued rules and regulations, many of which you may not be aware of. Laws, such as the Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986, were created in response to the world that was rapidly starting to connect at the speed of light. Since then, there have been several amendments, revisions, and new laws that affect your online privacy more than you might know.
A better understanding of these laws will allow you to be more cognizant of what information can be gathered from, or about you. Let’s take a look at some of the relevant regulations out there.
Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986
Some of you may have noticed that the date, 1986, is before the World Wide Web was created, making it extremely out of date. The ECPA was originally designed with the intention to restrict what the government could and could not access, providing a measure of personal privacy on the transmission of electronic data.
So, what does that mean? The original act restricts the government from intercepting communications and protects wire, voice, and other forms of electronic communication while in transit. That’s part 1, part 2, which is outlined in the Stored Communications Act, protects electronically stored communications from being accessed.
Sounds great, right? The government can’t look at your communications, and your privacy and anonymity are safe?
Not exactly. While, on the surface this seems to be the case, because of the time in which it was established, the provisions in the act state that any communication that’s held in storage for more than 180 days is “abandoned.” Abandoned information no longer requires a probable-cause warrant for the government to access it.
Oh, and your last 3 years of emails are also fair game with just a subpoena stating that they’re relevant to an investigation. No judicial review required.
The best way to get around this is, instead of leaving your emails on Gmail’s servers, it’s recommended that you store your mail on your local machine, as a probable cause warrant is still required.
But there’s still good news in that action is being taken to ratify this act and bring it into the 21st century. The bad news is that it’s being done with acts like…
The Patriot Act
Unless you’ve been living in a cave since the early 2000’s, almost everyone has heard of, and about, the Patriot Act. If there’s ever been an attempt to squash what remnant of privacy we may have this is it. The Patriot Act includes a special provision that grants power to federal security agencies in the form of national security letters, pen registers, and tap-and-trace orders, sometimes called warrantless wiretaps.
That is to say, the government can surveil you without your knowledge, record and store your personal information including but not limited to bank accounts, phone records, and computer history records, and use the obtained information as admissible evidence in a court of law, without a warrant, as long as it’s done “in the name of national security”.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act
Since its enactment in 1996, much of the CDA has been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, as many pieces of it infringed upon freedom of speech, however one part still remains in effect.
Section 230 covers the liability of interactive websites, such as Facebook, 4Chan, or YouTube, and provides legal insulation from being held liable from what’s said by their users, at the cost of targeting the users themselves.
Basically, if you comment on a YouTube video with something slanderous, I can’t sue YouTube for your comment, I can only sue you. That doesn’t sound too bad though, right?
On November 29th, 2010 a 19 year-old named Ali Saad was arrested for downloading child pornography off of the popular forum site, 4Chan. Notice, he got in trouble for downloading them as opposed to uploading them.
Because of the anonymity granted to users on sites such as 4Chan, and this law preventing any sort of legal action against the forum itself, the anonymous users go uncaught and unprosecuted and the medium that they use to post this information still remains.
On the other hand, without the legal buffer that’s provided by section 230, many sites like Facebook wouldn’t be able to exist, due to the potential cost of trillions of dollars in litigation.
One thing we need to ask ourselves is, where do we draw the line? While the intention of policies like the Patriot Act are to protect the security of our nation and prevent a recurrence of the tragedies we witnessed on 9/11, is it worth it to sacrifice the privacy of our citizens? If not, then how do we protect ourselves?
It may be a while before we have the answers to these questions if we ever figure them out at all, but hey. If you do, might I suggest running for office?