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E-mail Privacy Under Fire

The Changing Face of Privacy

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Amendment H.R. 2471 has passed through the House of Representatives, and is now up for Senate consideration. This bill is officially an amendment of something called the Video Privacy Protection Act, which was signed into law in 1988. Things have changed a lot since then, though, as we all know. In 1988, there was no such thing as a DVD, the Internet was only being used on campuses, and the 2400 BPS modem was king.

The bill passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority. This amendment was designed to update the old Video Privacy Protection Act, to allow users to give their consent one time in regards to sharing private information. This bill has the support of Netflix, because it would bring America up to speed with the rest of the world as far as they were concerned. Any other Netflix viewer who is not in America has the option to automatically post the shows they watch to their Facebook account, so their friends know what they're watching, and they can watch it too. As it stands right now, American consumers can not give a blanket consent like this.

Once the bill reached to the senate, Senator Patrick Leahy added on a completely unrelated bill. S.1011, which requires police to obtain a search warrant before accessing data stored in the cloud, including e-mail. Suddenly, opposition appeared.

The National Sheriffs' Association moved quickly to ask the senate to reconsider this privacy bill. They are wanting to review how this law might impact law enforcement investigations. Clearly, if police are required to get a warrant before they get access to your e-mail, they would have to go through the process of probable cause which would no doubt slow things down for them.

But wait a minute, you may be saying don't police have to get a warrant to look at my e-mail already? Well, not so much. As it stands now, if the police seize your computer they have the ability to check it for illegal materials and so forth. This could be anything from kiddie porn to your browser history. It only makes sense that this information would be necessary if they were prosecuting a crime, and up to this point if the police seize your computer, it is expected that they will search it for information. This would no doubt include emails that are stored on your system. If your computer happens to be connected to a network when they do this search, it will, naturally, download any e-mail you normally have sent to your system automatically.

This pair of bills, now condensed into a single item, represent a protection of privacy that we would anticipate under our constitution. It is disquieting to discover that the police would have an objection to this sort of law, and yet, they do.

For those who are concerned with protecting their personal privacy, it is advisable not to send anything through the e-mail, since this is clearly not protected information. And since police are not required to obtain a search warrant (as things stand now) in order to go through your e-mail, anything they find there can be considered evidence against you.

Unfortunately, although the tracking site for the Federal government indicates this bill has about a 50/50 chance of passing, if law enforcement presses the issue chances are good they will have their way. The argument that this is necessary in order to catch terrorists doesn't seem to hold much water, though. After all, terrorists are not prone to use e-mail to spell out their plans to each other. Besides, the simple fact that the concerns were lodged by the National Sheriffs' Association should be sufficient to illustrate the fact that law enforcement is more concerned with looking at the common citizens' emails.

Common sense should dictate that you don't send personal information over the Internet, at least not through your e-mail. After all, this is certainly not a secure form of communication by any stretch of the imagination, so the safety practice should be sufficient to keep you from being concerned. But even if you're not doing anything wrong, in America you still have the right to privacy.

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