Research & Commentary: Protecting Privacy in Cloud Computing
The 25-five-year-old federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) doesn’t protect individuals’ data stored remotely in the Internet “cloud” (such as gmail, mobileme, and skydrive). This allows government agencies to perform warrantless searches on any data stored there for more than 180 days. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has filed an update to ECPA that would apply protections to any data stored in the cloud, plus geolocation data from mobile phones and URL and IP data from any device.
Cloud services are increasingly popular. More than 153 million Americans used some form of cloud-based email last year, according to a ComScore report. In addition, 22 percent of U.S. consumers store personal medical records and more than 20 percent store personal financial documents in these remote data centers.
The loopholes in ECPA’s obsolete, technology-specific language discourage consumers and businesses from using cloud services more intensively. Berin Szoka of TechFreedom notes updating ECPA to reduce ambiguity would decrease incentives for companies to locate their datacenters overseas, thus keeping more jobs in the United States. The reform also would clarify that “normal law enforcement access to private data should be subject to the judicial warrant requirement enshrined in the Fourth Amendment,” Szoka notes.
Adoption of new ECPA language and new transparency and reporting requirements for the use of “emergency exemptions”—without adding any new regulatory burdens—would benefit consumers, increase innovation in the telecom sector, and help strengthen the economy.
The following documents consider the implications of extending privacy protection to the cloud.
S. 1011 is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2011, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The act updates the decades-old ECPA with language protecting cloud-based, mobile, and geolocation information from privacy infringements.
This press release from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) details his plan to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Leahy writes, “The balanced reforms in this bill will help ensure that our federal privacy laws address the many dangers to personal privacy posed by the rapid advances in electronic communications technologies.”
Writing for the World Privacy Forum, Robert Gellman outlines many of the threats to privacy in cloud computing and identifies ways to increase consumer and business privacy. Gellman writes, “both government agencies and private litigants may be able to obtain information from a third party more easily than from the creator of the information.”
This coalition letter to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) from a host of free-market and digital privacy groups sparked his update to the ECPA and suggested specific updates. The letter advises, “Specifically, Congress should amend outdated U.S. laws originally intended to protect citizens against unwarranted law enforcement access to their private information held electronically by third parties.”
Writing in the Georgetown Law Review, William Jeremy Robison identifies a legal framework of best practices from past law that can be applied to new technologies. He argues that past law was written poorly: “The Stored Communications Act [of 1986] ... is not built around clear principles that are intended to easily accommodate future changes in technology; instead, Congress chose to draft a complex statute based on the operation of early computer networks.” Robison argues for a full rewrite of both the ECPA and the Stored Communications Act.
Technology and privacy expert Steven Titch of the Reason Foundation argues cloud computing is becoming so essential that in order for U.S. businesses to remain competitive and innovative it must be protected: “It’s not simply an option in the way one chooses to manage data. Cloud computing is becoming necessary to go about one’s daily business. Legal protections need to be there.”
Reason Foundation information technology expert Steven Titch argues in favor of Sen. Leahy’s update of the ECPA. He writes, however, “the bill could be strengthened even more if, as the American Civil Liberties Union suggests, there were stricter reporting requirements about the use of online surveillance and greater safeguards against the use of ‘emergency exemptions’ that could undermine the bill’s aims.”
For further information on this subject, visit the InfoTech & Telecom News Web site at http://www.infotech-news.org, the InfoTech Issue Suite at The Heartland Institute’s Web site at http://www.heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.
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