The Norman Transcript

Opinion

December 17, 2012

Technology changes; need for privacy doesn’t

NORMAN — The way people communicate has changed dramatically in the digital age. The privacy protections people expect shouldn’t.

Most people would be surprised to know that law enforcement doesn’t need a search warrant signed by a judge to review a person’s emails or other electronic communications.

Under the 26-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a prosecutor need only file a subpoena in order to dig through people’s communications, if the files are more than six months old.

If you have letters, financial information or other communications on paper, filed in your desk drawer for six months — or years — you would reasonably expect they are not fair game for law enforcement without a search warrant.

Simply because the same information is sitting on servers at Google, Facebook or Internet providers shouldn’t make them more easily available to investigators.

Fortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee is moving a bill to restore personal privacy protections.

Under the legislation, police would have to obtain a search warrant from a judge before they can review a person’s emails or other communications.

Law enforcement groups have resisted changing the law, saying it could harm criminal and national security investigations.

It would do nothing of the kind. Investigators would simply have to show a judge they have reasonable probable cause to believe someone has committed a crime and get a search warrant to investigate further.

And the law change would still allow law enforcement to collect other information with simply a subpoena signed by a prosecutor — such as obtaining routing data from third-party Internet providers that can identify the sender of an email and the location where the message was sent, without being able to read any of those emails.

When it reconvenes early next year, Congress should pass the legislation.

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in 1791, aimed to limit government intrusions and searches. How people generate and store their personal communications may have changed astonishingly since then.

But the protections afforded by the amendment shouldn’t change.

— The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.

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