Have you ever heard of the Stored Communications Act (SCA)? Also known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, this federal law governs how the government and law enforcement agencies interact with your private electronic data. Signed into law by President Reagan in 1986, the SCA lays the ground rules for when a service provider can release your information to law enforcement. Now, some cracks in the SCA are making it unclear who has the right to access your online data.
In 2013, the government asked for a warrant, issued under the rules of the SCA, to look at the private data of a man suspected of drug trafficking. The magistrate judge in the case, after examining the government’s evidence, granted the warrant, but Microsoft refused to release the data. The particular information the government wanted was being stored in an overseas datacenter, and Microsoft claimed that handing over data stored overseas to U.S. officials would violate extraterritorial rules.
A district court judge sided with the magistrate that issued the warrant. Microsoft then took the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The three-judge panel sided with Microsoft, and now the case has been appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. How the court rules could affect the way many similar cases all over the country are treated, but warrants against drug dealers aren’t the only data disputes.
Earlier this year, a Massachusetts man passed away from injuries sustained during a cycling accident and left no will. This sent his estate into probate where his siblings were appointed his executors. They knew their brother had kept a Yahoo e-mail account for several years and wanted access to those e-mails. However, Yahoo wouldn’t comply with their request.
Yahoo argued that regulations set forth in the SCA prevented the company from disclosing the information without direct consent from the account holder—the cyclist who had died. The siblings took Yahoo to court and the case found its way to the Massachusetts Superior Court (the state’s highest court). The court came to the conclusion that as executors of the cyclist’s estate, the siblings could give direct consent and that the SCA did not preempt state probate and common law in regards to such a matter. However, many legal authorities question this ruling on the grounds of privacy and argue that this case wasn’t an instance of preemption in the first place.
In both situations, finding an answer seems to be a muddy process that really doesn’t provide a true solution to the problem. Many tech companies, privacy advocates, and law enforcement officials are asking Congress to step in and clarify the outdated policies of the SCA. A potential solution is in the works with the “International Communications Privacy Act,” sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Christopher Coons (D-DE). A resolution of these questions could prove vital to our future in the information age.
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