Been engaging in illicit texting sessions with your lover, bookie, or international terrorist organizations on your smartphone? Best start deleting those texts now. Better yet, cancel your wireless subscription and bury the phone in the backyard. Things could get ugly.
As I write this, the U.S. Congress is revisiting the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, a piece of legislation so old it has to take Geritol just to get out of bed each morning. Believe it or not, the ECPA is the primary piece of federal legislation cops look to for guidance on how they can legally spy on our digital lives -- despite the fact it was written back when fax machines were newfangled technology, landlines ruled the earth, and things like the World Wide Web, Google, and Facebook did not exist.
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This is a good thing. The ECPA is desperately in need of revision. The question is whether it will be revised in a way that is worse for you and me than the law as it exists today.
As Cnet's Declan McCullagh reports, a law enforcement officers trade group called the Major Cities Chiefs Association wants the new ECPA to require wireless carriers to retain at least two years' worth of text records for each subscriber, to be used as needed for police investigations.
For some perspective, consider this: According to Forrester Research, more than 2 trillion texts were sent last year via U.S. carriers. Yes, I did say trillion. Little wonder, then, that U.S. carriers rarely keep more than a week's worth of texts at a time, if they keep them at all.
The current version of the ECPA, which was just approved by the U.S. Senate Judicial Committee last week, actually strengthens privacy by requiring cops to obtain a warrant before accessing data stored in the cloud, including email messages. Of course, that doesn't mean the law will stay that way -- hence the request by the MCC and other police trade groups.
The stalwart folks at Pro Publica, one of the last vestiges of investigative journalism that can found outside a museum, have published a helpful guide as to what types of digital information Johnny Law can obtain about you and what he has to do to get it. The short answer: The cops can access virtually anything they want without having to show much in the way of cause.
To obtain records of who you called and when you called them, the cops merely need a subpoena that indicates the information is relevant to an investigation. That's much easier to get than a warrant, which requires law enforcement to show probable cause as to why they need all this stuff.
The location of your cellphone? The IP addresses you used to visit certain sites? The data you store in the cloud? Emails or texts more than six months old? All can be accessed via subpoena.