Apple and Dropbox join Digital Due Process coalition

US Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 badly needs updating
Kerry Butters

September 23, 2011

Apple and Dropbox have agreed to join the campaign asking that internet companies inform users when governments ask for access to their data.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) started the campaign in April and the two companies have apparently agreed to EFF’s request to join the Digital Due Process (DDP) coalition in the US.

DDP is “a diverse coalition of privacy advocates [...] that have come together with the shared goal of modernizing surveillance laws for the internet age.”

The intention is to press Congress to bring up to date the “woefully-outdated” Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).

The Act first came into being in 1986, so it seems clear why it wouldn’t seem to be especially relevant in today’s world, as this was way before the internet actually took off.

EFF say that the Act still governs how and when authorities can gain access to “personal information and private communications stored by communications providers.”

In this day and age, that would extend to mean not just your telephony company, but also companies that store your information online such as Google and Facebook.

The issue will resonate with users in the UK, as the much maligned Digital Economy Act which was pushed through just before the last general election has recently come under debate again.

The DEA has been criticised for the inclusion of such things as website blocking, with many rights groups arguing that censorship such as this is against freedom of speech.

The UK government is currently debating a repeal of the act, with the Lib Dems this week voting in favour of repealing some of it, and a new Communications Act is expected to be put in place in the future.

Likewise, EFF says that the ECPA is “weak, confusing and outdated” and has led to years of bickering over whether the authorities need a warrant in order to be able to track a mobile phone.

Additionally, EFF maintain, the seizure of email and IM chats “turns on absurd factors like how old the messages are and [...] whether or not you’ve read them yet.”

Even more of a worry is the fact that the US government “seems to think that the privacy of your search history stored at Google or Yahoo or Microsoft’s Bing isn’t protected by ECPA at all.”

The EFF wants the ECPA to either be amended or replaced so that the privacy of individuals is maintained and authorities would have to go through proper channels to be allowed access to them.

As EFF points out, this should only be done when probable cause for investigating an individual’s online activity is proven through the courts.

There has been some success since DDP was launched last year, as five hearings have been held with the result that several bills have been introduced that go some way to begin to address these issues.

“As we enter that next phase in the fight for electronic privacy reform, it’s good to know that we’ll have Apple and Dropbox on our side,” EFF said in a statement.

“We’re especially pleased to have these new allies as we approach the 25th anniversary of ECPA’s passage on October 21st, which will be a focal point in our campaign to get a 21st century upgrade to our electronic privacy laws.”

It will be interesting to see what happens on both sides of the Atlantic and how each government implements new laws for the digital age.


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