1986 Privacy Act
Warrantless email surveillance is part of a much larger set of surveillance issues exposed earlier this year by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton employee, leaked documents to the Guardian newspaper showing that the NSA has been collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans.
Although authorities have not been listening in on telephone conversations, they have been collecting what is known as “metadata,” which includes the length of calls, call locations and telephone numbers dialed. The Obama administration insists that this surveillance is legal.
Lost in the whirlwind of the Snowden whistleblowing drama is a brewing battle to change the Electronic Communications Privacy Act that was signed into law in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan.
The law prohibits warrantless access to many types of electronic communication, including “signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photoelectronic or photooptical system that affects interstate or foreign commerce.”
The problem is that the Internet wasn’t available to the public in 1986, and didn’t even become a prominent feature in U.S. homes until the mid to late 1990s.
To put things in perspective, only 10 percent of U.S. homes had Internet access in 1995, according to the Pew Internet Project — nine years after the law was passed.