Viewpoint: The Government Would Like to Keep Reading Your E-Mail

A recent vote in Congress continues to allow easy access to private correspondence

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The scandal that brought down General David Petraeus last fall contained a miniscandal within it: just how easy it is for the FBI to read people’s e-mail. If Petraeus and his biographer Paula Broadwell had communicated about their extramarital affair solely by telephone, their exchanges might have remained secret. But e-mail does not get the kind of legal protection from government snooping that phone calls and regular mail do.

There have long been calls on Congress to upgrade e-mail privacy, but it has not done so — and recently, it let us down once again. This failure to act is not the usual Washington inertia or gridlock. It is because there are a lot of people in government who like the idea of being able to read citizens’ private e-mail. And Internet users — who have gotten good at pushing back against Facebook over privacy issues — have not been putting pressure on Congress to strengthen e-mail privacy.

(LIST: Top 10 Scandals of 2012)

The Electronic Communication Privacy Act — the main law governing e-mail privacy — was enacted in 1986, when no one had any idea how important e-mail would become or how it would be used. The ECPA requires the government to obtain a search warrant to read e-mail — just like regular mail — but the FBI’s position is that it does not need a warrant once you have opened your e-mail. That means in much of the country — some federal courts have said no — all the FBI needs to do in order to read your e-mail is, essentially, ask Google or Yahoo nicely (and issue an easy-to-do subpoena).

Last fall, when Congress got to work on rolling back privacy protections for online videos — something Netflix wanted badly — the original bill contained a provision requiring the FBI to get a search warrant before reading people’s e-mail. But in late December, Congress passed the “Netflix amendment,” which did not include the e-mail-privacy provision. Make no mistake: the protections did not get lost in the shuffle. Law enforcement lobbied strongly against the requirement of a search warrant to read stored e-mails, arguing that it “could jeopardize the effectiveness of investigations,” and opposed new requirements that would give people prompt notice if the government obtained a search warrant to look at their e-mail. The bill is headed to the President, who is expected to sign it.

(MORE: Will We Ever Get Strong Internet-Privacy Rules?)

Many people think that keeping the government from wantonly searching e-mail is not important because the FBI is targeting bad guys — al-Qaeda operatives and organized-crime figures — and not ordinary folks. But there is no way of knowing if this is true, and there are some worrisome indications that it is not. As recently as 2005, the National Security Agency was intercepting millions of purely domestic e-mails and phone calls between Americans. That is a lot of messages — and it is hard to believe that many law-abiding people were not caught up in the surveillance net.

The weak privacy protection for e-mail is a real crisis because e-mail is one of the most sensitive realms of modern life. There is a great deal of constitutional law about the right not to have the government search our cars or our regular mail. But those things cannot compare with e-mail, where people often put their most private, intimate communications, as the Petraeus scandal demonstrated. Millions of people care deeply about their privacy rights, but they are not as well organized or sophisticated as the government lawyers and law-enforcement groups that have been fighting for access to e-mail. If Americans want their e-mail protected, they are going to have to start speaking up at least as loudly as the law-enforcement interests who want to keep reading their private communications.

MORE: Why Is Congress Protecting the Gun Industry?

5 comments
JordanNyembe
JordanNyembe

Over the past years the department of National Security (TIS) and his
servants was not pronounced as it is today, but because the world
changed eventually this department has begun to appear with some of his
ministers were unable to defend the honor of this department sensitive Any nation on Earth.


Reported and not a secret anymore that this department has come to the
point and insulted bright with a few giving honor to the department and
his servants but some of these politicians and government leaders,
including the heads of provinces and districts with no fear of this
department.

I do not believe that these leaders are failing to
respect for their department chairpersons of the committees that the
safety and security of district and provincial heads of department with
the district ie ma (DSO) and ma (URSO) that the secretaries of the
committee.

But it is impossible to doubt, at least 50 percent
of the system may also be a source of contempt for our department is
sensitive.

Based on these features, leading mentioning this
department and this is due to write history Mbeya region since 2008
where politicians were delaying President Jakaya Kikwete in Chunya
district and finally his caravan and stones.

For those who
forget me remind you that the caravan was stoned by the people of the
Village of Tribal districts Chunya and injuring some people who were in
the caravan after failing to stand with the people of the village that
allows you to have time to do so.

The event, took place at 1:00
pm after that, some youths were splashed stone caravan after seeing
President passers by would stop and.

Not a good thing and not
something to smile at the least, but after the incident happen I thought
it was a great lesson for our leaders who preside over these protocols.


I say so because the managers of older protocols Government officials
believe they can instruct the President to leave to start the journey
but I wonder these leaders were overwhelmed by politicians eventually
pass to happen.

It's a shame for Tanzania but we have failed to learn.


We were unable to learn because the offense though nothing wrong, those
same leaders of the protocol and here I'm talking National Security
weekend February 24, this year they add dice politicians relatives.


Do you know how was it? It was a caravan of Vice President of the
United Republic of Tanzania Dr. Mohamed Bilali had moved to launch
Tunduma market where an equally misled many things with politicians
clapped their hands after cooking information!

Our national
leader to take the market which does not have even the toilet while they
read a statement that was prepared to CEO Aidan Mwanshinga Tunduma town
he fled he gave the secretary read the market which has no toilet or
water.

With it; politicians they moved to the leaders of the
government region of Mbeya have to arrange the schedule of Vice
President of our which was indicating that he would do the work of
governmental district Mbozi until the summer at 11 and 55 minutes
evening but coming to one hour in the afternoon.

After completing all the work caravan began to Mbeya small palace where the caravan arrived at two summer nights!


This situation, which even some stakeholders have complained about
safety issues and I even less and that is why question that our
department is the nation's security, decisions are overwhelmed by these
politicians?

Or officials of this department are failing to
meet their obligations even some from the leaders themselves accessible
through a system of political parties? But no here we should as a
nation.

My opinion leaders involved, interview those involved
to move around at night our Vice President Dr. Bilali from Mbozi towards
small hall of the Mbeya region, even if no harm generated and if this
is normal, God help us.

weirish37
weirish37

I sure wish that I could understand what you are saying???

JordanNyembe
JordanNyembe

I feel like one of the spies who spy specializing in issues that they have failed to discover or to find a solution that can achieve detection based on the research and investigation in order to facilitate the exercise of government.

JoeMartinez
JoeMartinez

Well fella Americans, you demand National Security now you got it, so stop your squabbling! Every time a would be terrorist is apprehended before he acts, we cheer the government. You can not have it both ways. I have nothing to hide they can read all my communications, of course maybe those squabbling have something to hide. Are you a muslin sympathizer or an ignorant skin head?.

Surfboat
Surfboat

With electronic filing of patents and income tax returns, stock trading, etc. one would think that the Gov't. would recognize how valuable a secure communication line would be to the economy.   One wonders how many inventions are not being patented because we can't trust email?  How many corporations are risking criminal penalty rather than claim a form of income that is in itself an intellectual property?   Hey Uncle Sam,  wanna know how to make a gazzilion bucks;  Get secure communication.