What's Next For The Electronic Communications Privacy Act?

CIS Director of Privacy and Robotics Ryan Calo was interviewed by Marketplace Tech Report's John Moe to discuss potential changes that may be made to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

This week is the 25th anniversary of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Can a law passed before the birth of the World Wide Web really keep up with the modern world?

A bunch of people are in Washington, D.C., today saying no way. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) are joined by advocacy groups such as the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union.


Signed at a time when Crocodile Dundee was the number one movie in the country, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act deals with the issue of when a law enforcement body can access electronic data. Ryan Calo, who runs the Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford's Center for Internet & Society, says, "This act is what governs the circumstances under which the government can get data on people's electronic communications like their emails that are being held in companies like Google's Gmail or Facebook. This act really goes to content of your communications and so the idea here is the government would try to get at what you said in an email."


But even if the law is updated and brought up to the world of 2011, what will it be able to do for the technology of 2012? Or 2020? Or 2036? Calo says it's a struggle whether to write these things in strict terms that will be handy today or in vague terms that could give general guidance in the future. "In the law," he says, "you see again and again this debate between whether we should be using rules which are very concrete and have the benefit of consistency and you know what they apply to, versus standards, which are these more loose or amorphous ideas. And course tech moves so fast, that standards seem to be the order of the day. It's a very difficult problem and it's not easy for legislators or courts to solve it."