Update Online Privacy Policy to Protect All Private Messages

Target: Joe Biden, Vice President and President of the Senate

Goal: Update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to protect all private messages

After the outrage following consideration of the IRS reading private e-mails without a warrant, IRS acting commissioner Steven T. Miller has thankfully decided to redact that notion and maintain that a warrant be required to read private e-mails. The idea had been unpopular with the Senate, and Miller is soon going to update IRS policy documents stating that a warrant is required to read an individual’s private e-mails. Search warrants can be obtained for criminal court cases, but not for civil cases. But the protected status of private e-mails is still not specific enough.

In 2010, a federal appeals court ruled that a warrant was required to read all e-mails. However, the time statute on protected e-mails is unclear. The IRS has stated that it would always obtain a warrant to read e-mails that are less than 180 days old, but the policy about e-mails older than that is unclear, as was the policy about reading private messages on Facebook and other forms of social media. Miller was also unclear about whether the IRS has already read private messages without a warrant.

The American Civil Liberties Union is calling for an update of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 to include protected status for private messages on all social media websites. We think this update is necessary, and we would also like to call for protected status of private messages older than 180 days. Urge Vice President and Speaker of the House Joe Biden to endorse these changes in the next Senate meeting.


Dear Mr. Biden,

We are glad to hear that the IRS is going to require a warrant to read private e-mails. Having the government snoop through citizens’ private messages would have been a violation of the Fourth Amendment and an infringement of our rights as Americans.

But the law remains incomplete. When asked, IRS Acting Commissioner Steven Miller did not give concrete answers about whether private messages on Facebook and other social media are also protected. He also stated that the IRS will not read messages that are 180 days old or less without a search warrant, but didn’t say that older messages were protected.

We think that updating the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) would clear up these confusions. In the interest of upholding the Fourth Amendment, please endorse additions to the ECPA that would protect private messages sent on all forms of social media at any time, and propose these changes at the next Senate meeting.


[Your Name Here]

photo credit:  One Laptop per Chile via Flickr

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