While we wait for cold fusion, let's update the ECPA

Gibbs wants you to get as excited about protecting your privacy as many of you are about cold fusion

Well, last week's Backspin on Rossi's E-Cat power generator was fun. Between that column and a blog posting I made on the topic over at Forbes, I've had more than 100 comments and an insane number of page views which all goes to show just what a hot topic alternative energy is.

While many of the comments appeared to be from remarkably credulous people many of whom may well wear tinfoil hats (the number of "the Man has suppressed the truth" messages was impressive), most of the feedback discussed the impact that such a technology might have.

What people are, I believe, responding to is the sheer excitement at something so powerfully transformative happening in their lifetimes. While that's great, it would be fantastic if we could get people as excited over other important topics.

What I'm thinking of are things like the movement to get the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 updated.

Does that sound exciting? No! Of course not! It sounds like yet more stuff that has all the thrill potential of a hangover . . . which is actually just what the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 is.

Enacted, as you probably noticed, in 1986, the ECPA extended government restrictions on wire tapping telephone calls to include intercepting electronic data transmissions. According to Wikipedia "ECPA was an amendment to Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (the Wiretap Statute), which was primarily designed to prevent unauthorized government access to private electronic communications."

At the time it was made law, which was pre-Web, pre-smartphones, pre-civilization as we know it, the ECPA made sense ... at least, it did if you were a raving bureaucrat.

The act was subsequently challenged over its applicability to law enforcement intercepting email and roundly criticized for its failure to protect consumer privacy and the reality is that ECPA is now woefully out of date. In the 25 years since the ECPA was enacted, technology has evolved insanely fast and consequently the provisions of the act are no longer appropriate.

Central to the complaints is that ECPA makes it ridiculously easy for government agencies to demand that service providers of any kind including hosting, cellular, email, and social networking providers, reveal user data stored on their servers. The agency just has to provide a written statement claiming that the data is relevant to an investigation involving foreign counterintelligence and no warrant is required.

In fact, at least one cellular provider, Sprint, tired of government agency demands for tracking their subscribers, went so far as to provide a self-service portal for investigators to use with more-or-less no oversight!

And just as worrying is the issue that the act allows an employer to monitor any employee communications within the company with minimal reason.

On the other hand, violation of the act was the basis of the successful prosecution of the Lower Merion School District last year when the school administration used secret software installed on school supplied laptops to secretly take more than 66,000 screenshots and photos of students, many of which were while the students were in their bedrooms!

For these reasons, progressive groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) with support from Google and Facebook and, surprisingly, members from both sides of the house, are campaigning for the act to be revised.

You can, and should, sign the EFF petition because while upgrading the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 is nowhere near as exciting as cold fusion and the prospect of limitless energy, it still matters and until Rossi's device is proven to work, the flaws in the ECPA are far more real.

Gibbs has signed the EFF petition from Ventura, Calif. Your thoughts on the act to backspin@gibbs.com.

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