The following editorial first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:
In 1986, cell phones were an expensive novelty, GPS tracking was only a dream, texting had yet to be invented and only 30 million computers were in use in the United States. That's the year Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, establishing the standards in effect to this day for government access to e-mail and other electronic communications in criminal investigations.
The law has been changed only slightly over those 24 years and desperately needs an overhaul. The only people defending the status quo are those still using their Apple Mac Plus, which also was introduced in 1986.
Congress at long last is taking this on at the urging of a broad coalition of technology companies and advocacy groups. They can help lawmakers set a clear standard that balances the right to privacy with law enforcement's need to protect the public. The law now is a muddle of inconsistencies that befuddle service providers and law enforcement alike.
For example, today police and other agencies need a search warrant to access e-mails less than 180 days old, but e-mails older than that or stored on an Internet "cloud" service do not. A court order should be required for all e-mails, GPS tracking information, monitoring of text messages and any similar activity. These proposals should not affect government investigations involving national security or terrorism, which are guided by a different set of laws. But for routine criminal investigations, Congress should give private electronic information and communications the same level of protection as paper ones, regardless of the platform in which they were created or the time that's elapsed since they were sent.