The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The government often doesn’t need a warrant to get your e-mails. But most think it should.

(Damian Dovaganes / AP)

Your e-mails have fewer legal protections than you probably think. Thanks to a 1980s-era law known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, or ECPA, the government generally doesn't need a warrant to get its hands on e-mails stored in your inbox for more than six months.

The law dates back to long before storing everything in "the cloud" became the norm: When it was passed, it seemed crazy that digital storage could become so cheap that companies like Google would offer archive all of your e-mails (and much of the rest of our life) online. But even though how people use e-mail has changed dramatically since then, the law has not, despite bipartisan pushes to update it in recent years.

Now new polling suggests Americans are ready for the law to change. Some 77 percent of more than 1,000 registered voters surveyed by pollsters at Vox Populi this month said they believe a warrant should be required to access "emails, photos and other private communications stored online."

When the voters had the basics of ECPA explained to them, 86 percent said it should be updated, and 53 percent said they'd be more likely to support a candidate who favored "strengthening online privacy" through reforming the law.

“Support for strengthening online privacy spans across all ages, races and political affiliations. This level of support is typically unheard of in politics today,” said Vox Populi's Michael Meyers.

But the poll does come with a major caveat: It was run on behalf of the Digital 4th coalition, a group that wants the law updated. And it comes at a particularly opportune time for privacy advocates and tech companies who want a warrant requirement for e-mails built into federal law: The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday will debate a proposal to update the law from Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) known as the Email Privacy Act. 

“The Electronic Communications Privacy Act is a decades-old, complex statute that governs the collection of vital evidence in a wide array of investigations," committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said in a statement announcing the hearing. "Technology has changed dramatically since 1986 and there is broad consensus that ECPA is outdated and contains insufficient protections for Americans’ privacy."

But changing the law isn't necessarily a slam dunk: Despite a pretty broad base of support on the hill and -- if this latest poll is to be believed - the general public, a number of federal agencies who perform investigations that may rely on e-mail evidence have raised objections to a warrant requirement. Even the Federal Trade Commission, one of the government's chief online privacy watchdogs, didn't seem to be onboard at a hearing in September.

During Senate testimony, the FTC cautioned Congress against going too far with ECPA reform, The Washington Post reported.

"The FTC is concerned that recent proposals could impede its ability to obtain certain information" from Internet companies, said Dan Salsburg, a senior agency lawyer.