This White House petition on Internet privacy now requires a response

December 12, 2013

(Screengrab: Whitehouse.gov)

Over 100,000 people have signed onto a WethePeople petition asking President Obama to support changes in a 27-year-old privacy law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). The law, which was written in 1986, and long before Gmail and Facebook, allows the seizing of e-mail and other digital communications without a warrant. Critics say it doesn't provide enough privacy protections for online communications.

"Americans are deeply concerned about NSA surveillance," the petition reads. "But the NSA’s not the only problem. An outdated law says the IRS and hundreds of other agencies can read our communications without a warrant."

Crossing the 100,000-signature threshold means that the White House must now issue a response to the petitioners, though there's no telling when that might come.

The petition narrowly made Thursday's deadline with several hundred extra signatures to spare (and more are still coming in).

Proponents of revising the ECPA say that in the wake of this year's NSA revelations, Congress must pass an update to ECPA that raises the legal barriers to online snooping by law enforcement. Under the current rules, only a subpoena, not a search warrant, is required to gain access to e-mail older than 180 days — even as archiving mails rather than deleting them has grown more popular over time. Other information that's potentially subject to easy collection include posts on social media and mobile geolocation data.

While the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved an ECPA reform bill already, it's still waiting for a vote by the full Senate.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · December 12, 2013