Page last updated at 04:58 GMT, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 05:58 UK

US tech coalition calls for new online privacy law

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

An eye reflecting a DNA autoradiogram
Coalition supporters say the EPCA has not kept pace with technology

US technology firms and privacy groups have called for an overhaul of privacy laws, saying the government has too much access to private online data.

Google, eBay and others have launched the Digital Due Process coalition, seeking to update the 1986 privacy act, passed before internet usage exploded.

It calls for warrants to be issued before e-mails and texts are handed over to law enforcement agencies.

It seeks more protection of data stored online and mobile tracking information.

Outdated law

The coalition is looking to re-write the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 that governs what kinds of private digital information the government has access to and how they may obtain it.

"It is not surprising that a law written in 1986 didn't foresee the privacy protections we need some 25 years later," Richard Salgado, Google's senior counsel for law enforcement and information security told BBC News.

poster of someone on the mobile
The number of mobile users has soared since the law was introduced

The coalition - which includes over 30 members drawn from the worlds of industry, privacy and academia - said the ECPA is "a patchwork of confusing standards that have been interpreted inconsistently by the courts".

For example, law enforcement agencies can get access to some email information, instant messages, and other data stored online through simple subpoenas, not court-ordered warrants.

The coalition has recommended that a warrant be required before internet providers must hand over the online information - just as a warrant is required for a physical search of a suspect's computer or filing cabinets.

It wants similar protection before mobile carriers turn over tracking information about customers.

It also want courts to ensure any real-time information like texts and instant messages are relevant to an investigation.

"The law needs to be clear that the same standard applies to email and documents stored with a service provider, while at the same time be flexible enough to meet law enforcement needs," said Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology.


Members of the coalition said that had had discussions with the White House, the FBI and the justice and commerce departments.

They acknowledged that law enforcement agencies were likely to resist any change and a long debate was almost certain before Congress would act.

"We are not expecting that these will be enacted this year, but it's time to begin the dialogue," the CDT's Mr Dempsey told reporters.

Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he planned to hold hearings on "much-needed updates" to the US privacy act.

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