Rethinking the privacy laws

January 23, 2014

The final version of my new article, The Next Generation Communications Privacy Act, 162 U. Pa. L. Rev. 373 (2014), has just been published. The article considers how Congress should update the privacy laws that regulate government access to e-mail and other Internet communications, both for contents and metadata, in criminal investigations. Here’s the abstract:

In 1986, Congress enacted the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) to regulate government access to Internet communications and records. ECPA is widely regarded as outdated, and ECPA reform is now on the Congressional agenda. At the same time, existing reform proposals retain the structure of the 1986 Act and merely tinker with a few small aspects of the statute. This Article offers a thought experiment about what might happen if Congress were to repeal ECPA and enact a new privacy statute to replace it.

The new statute would look quite different from ECPA because overlooked changes in Internet technology have dramatically altered the assumptions on which the 1986 Act was based. ECPA was designed for a network world with high storage costs and only local network access. Its design reflects the privacy threats of such a network, including high privacy protection for real-time wiretapping, little protection for noncontent records, and no attention to particularity or jurisdiction. Today’s Internet reverses all of these assumptions. Storage costs have plummeted, leading to a reality of almost total storage. Even U.S.-based services now serve a predominantly foreign customer base. A new statute would need to account for these changes.

This Article contends that a next generation privacy act should contain four features. First, it should impose the same requirement on access to all contents. Second, it should impose particularity requirements on the scope of disclosed metadata. Third, it should impose minimization rules on all accessed content. And fourth, it should impose a two-part territoriality regime with a mandatory rule structure for U.S.-based users and a permissive regime for users located abroad.

My next article addresses some of the new Fourth Amendment issues raised by the questions I address in the article above, and in particular how the Fourth Amendment applies over a global Internet. I’ll post a link to the draft of that new article when it’s online.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law.
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