Bringing Internet privacy into the 21st century

Microsoft, Google, AT&T, and other leading lights of the tech industry agree: We need to update the rules protecting our digital privacy

Finally, there's something Google and Microsoft can agree on: Our electronic privacy protections are in serious need of an overhaul. They, along with Intel, AOL, AT&T, the ACLU, and a dozen other household names, have formed the Digital Due Process coalition, aimed at urging Congress to modernize the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) -- the only thing keeping Johnny Law from pawing through your digital life.

The ECPA was passed into law in 1986. To put that in context, the first Notes From the Field columns appeared in print issues of InfoWorld that year, back when I was just a cub reporter. Ronald Reagan was still president, even if he may not have been aware of it at the time. The Web was still three years from being invented. The term "spam" still referred to canned luncheon meat, and a 300-baud modem represented a state-of-the-art Internet connection.

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Yet the ECPA is still the digital law of the land. It's a little like using statutes written for the horse and buggy era to govern the Autobahn.

The technological breakthroughs that have emerged since the ECPA was drafted to include: mass adoption of email, video- and photo-sharing services, social networking, blogs, microblogs, Web mail, cloud computing, smart phones, GPS/cell tower tracking, and location-based services, to name but a few.

(Google has put together a cute little video summarizing it all on its Official Blog. Watch it now before it gets overrun with the usual April Foolery tomorrow.)

Today, the photos you took with your Kodak Instamatic back in the day and stuffed into a box in your attic are more protected from government snoops than the ones you snapped with your cell phone and uploaded to Flickr yesterday. The letters you wrote back when people actually wrote letters are more protected than an email you sent last year. A document on your hard drive is less prone to surveillance than one you stored in the cloud. And the courts cannot seem to agree on a consistent way to treat any of this stuff.

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