Imagine if the police intercepted your mail before it arrived at your house and read the letters you got.
Or officers walked into your house and rummaged through your desk or drawers, looking for anything that might be suspicious.
Such activity, without a warrant from a judge, would be unconscionable.
But when it comes to your private online data, government agencies and law enforcement are able to look through email accounts and other private information using a section of the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act — a law written before email was ubiquitous and online information exploded.
The act allows law enforcement to subpoena Internet providers without getting a warrant. Google has said it’s been inundated with such warrantless requests and — in most cases — has to provide information of its users.
Last week, a bipartisan committee voted to advance a bill that would clamp down on such warrantless government searches of email and other private electronic information.
Congress is responding to a growing concern about unwanted government intrusions into private lives in cyberspace. And they’re responding to what many members of Congress says is an abuse of the practice by law enforcement.
Law enforcement groups oppose the bill, saying it can be very difficult to get enough information to build a level of probable cause that would prompt a judge to sign a search warrant.
But privacy protection measures aren’t in place to make police work as easy as it can be. They are there to protect the civil rights of citizens and to protect them from unnecessary intrusions by government.
A wealth of people’s public data is already online for anyone to see. Congress needs to ensure that the digital data that people reasonably believe to be private is kept private unless a judge signs a warrant.