On Tuesday, a group of US tech companies and non-profits announced the formation of the Digital Due Process Coalition. The group will support the introduction of new legislation to strengthen the protection of private digital information from government access. The basic premise of the group is that current rules dictating how law enforcement can access electronic data were created in 1986 by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and are now sorely out of date. The coalition has put forth four areas in which the ECPA needs to be improved:

  • Better protections for stored online data: They propose that the government must first get a search warrant before obtaining any private communications or documents stored online.
  • Better protections for location privacy: They propose that the government must first get a search warrant before it can track the location of mobile communications devices.
  • Better protections against monitoring of communications: They propose that the government must demonstrate to a court that the data it seeks is relevant and material to a criminal investigation before monitoring when and with whom one communicates using email, instant messaging, text messaging, telephones, etc.
  • Better protections against bulk data requests: They propose that the government must demonstrate to a court that the information it seeks is needed for a criminal investigation before it can obtain data about a class of users.

Ostensibly, these changes would be positive. Consumer information needs to be protected against excessive government intrusion and the 1986 ECPA clearly needs updating. Less clear is where to draw the line (what is “excessive”?) and how to balance civil liberties with national security. Additionally, a cynic might wonder why tech companies care so much about this – consumer trust and data are core to many of their businesses and many such as Google have recently received bad press around their own privacy practices, so this might act as a welcome distraction. Despite this, on net for consumers, the Digital Due Process Coalition’s efforts seem like a good thing.

Related articles: New York Times, Cato Institute, Google Blog