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4 Internet privacy laws you should know about

Brandon Butler | March 13, 2013
Last year after an outpouring of opposition, Internet advocates logged a victory when they defeated the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Last year after an outpouring of opposition, Internet advocates logged a victory when they defeated the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Now there are other new bills and efforts to amend existing law that could reshape how businesses share digital information about users and what powers the federal government has in obtaining online data. Below are four that are either actively being debated, or could come up for consideration soon.

Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)

Since this law setting standards for how the government can access digital information of citizens passed in 1986, technology has changed dramatically, but the law has not.

Proponents of ECPA reform say the most egregious portion of the law involves the rights the government has to obtain electronic files without needing a warrant. "A paper letter sitting in your home or office drawer has a significantly higher level of constitutional protection compared to an email right now," says Robert Holleyman, president of the Business Software Alliance, who backs changes to ECPA to strengthen consumer and business privacy.

ECPA allows the government to obtain access to digital communications -- including email, Facebook messages, information sitting in your public cloud provider's databases, and a variety of other files -- with only a subpoena and not a warrant once those items are 180 days old.

To provide a scope of how much information companies hand over the government, Google recently reported that it coughed up more 18,000 requests for information from the government in the second half of last year alone.

There is already movement afoot on Capitol Hill to change this. Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an update to ECPA, but it failed to reach a vote on the full Senate floor. This month, members of the House of Representatives filed an update to ECPA, so the debate will ramp up again soon.

Another portion of ECPA dictates when the government has access to GPS tracking using cellphones. There has been some support in the House for the GPS Act, which would set policies for when the government can access location information of citizens, but the Senate bill passed last year was silent on this issue.

Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA)

At a basic level, CISPA dictates how companies share information about cyberthreats with the federal government. Opponents to the legislation, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are worried about what they call inadequate privacy protections given the broad definitions of cyberthreat.

Equally concerning, according to Mark Stanley, head of campaigns and communications for the non-partisan Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), is that information companies turn over to the government goes to the National Security Administration, he says, which is a military division of the government.


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