For many of us, we have seen technology bloom at an amazing speed, progressing from radios to televisions, computers that filled rooms to ones that lay on our laps, and now to small and very powerful mobile phones. We rely heavily upon these tiny complex devices that reside in our pockets; they tell us the weather, news, how to get places, and, most importantly, they keep us connected to others around us.
Consequently, since technology has progressed, we now need advanced laws to protect our information from others. The main statutory protection, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, was written in 1986, well before the invention of the internet. The ECPA was primarily designed to prevent unauthorized government access to private electronic communications, such as writing, images, and data, and as we are all increasingly sharing our lives online, communicating and participating in e-commerce, we drastically need an update to modernize the ECPA. As Americans, we expect our personal and private information to be just that, personal and private. Most of us rely on computers, cell phones, and, largely, the internet to communicate, learn, and receive information, and what we view and discuss reveals a tremendous amount of information about our lives. This information needs to be protected.
At present, 82% of Americans own and use cell phones on a regular basis, and a rapidly increasing 40% of us own smart phones, capable of pinpointing our locations, browsing the internet, sending emails, and utilizing applications like Facebook and Twitter. Recently, Apple and Google appeared before the U.S. Senate to defend their mobile device location tracking policies, while Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) addressed the issue that Congress needs to take steps to enforce mobile privacy safeguards since mobile devices are only getting more popular.
Another criticism of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act is the use of illegally obtained electronic information. Currently, if a law enforcement official obtains non-electronic information illegally, that information cannot be used in a court of law. However, this rule does not apply to electronic information, and it is relatively easy for a government agency to demand service providers, like AT&T, Sprint, Verizon or other companies, to disclose consumer data such as call records, durations, traffic and calling patterns that have been stored on a server without a warrant. All that is required is a statement that the information is relevant to an investigation on counterintelligence with no judicial review required.
Public online profiles hosted by the social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, also prevent a challenge when dealing with outdated laws. A former high school teacher in Georgia claimed she was forced to resign because of vacation pictures she posted on Facebook. College students and high school students alike are constantly warned about what they choose to put on their Facebook profiles. Of course, these social media profiles present gray areas that haven’t been regulated as of now. The ECPA hasn’t drawn boundaries around what is private and what an employer can use against you. These social media tools also present easy information for a potential employer to discover, such as marital status and parental status. Profiles might also display what one likes to do outside the office, such as legally enjoying a glass of wine with friends. The public availability of this information may be used and may lead to wrongful termination, and the employer should be penalized.
We dwell in an age driven by technology and information, and we drastically need laws to protect our privacy and electronic data. Currently, our only protection is an outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act, signed in 1986, and applying to that same time period’s technological means. Just as technology has evolved, our privacy laws need to follow that same pace guaranteeing we are protected no matter the future of technology. If you or someone you know has had their private information misused or exploited, contact a lawyer to insure your electronic rights are protected.