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Electronic Communications Privacy Act Needs Overhaul, White House Says

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The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) is due for an overhaul, according to a White House review group study released Thursday. ECPA amendment is one of six recommendations among the group’s conclusions.

President Obama tasked the group with reviewing the impact of big data technologies in a January speech to the Justice Department, and the report “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” is the first result.

The group consists of Presidential Counselor John Podesta, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren, and Director of the National Economic Council Jeffrey Zients. These group leaders were joined by other government officials and consulted with stakeholders including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Cloud Security Alliance, and industry players such as Dell and Microsoft.

In addition to ECPA amendment their recommendations include advancing the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, passing National Data Breach legislation, extending privacy protections to non-US citizens, ensuring data collected on students in schools is used for educational purposes, and expanding technical expertise to stop discrimination.

Obama’s review group recognized the shortcomings of the ECPA, saying “The Stored Communications Act, which is part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), articulates the rules for obtaining the content of electronic communications, including email and cloud services. ECPA was originally passed in 1986. It has served to protect the privacy of individuals’ stored communications. But with time, some of the lines drawn by the statute have become outdated and no longer reflect ways in which we use technology today.”

i2Coalition co-founder and board chair Christian Dawson gave the study a mixed review. “Updating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) has long been a priority for i2Coalition, and we are encouraged to see the White House recommend in this report that the legislation be updated,” said Dawson. “However, government surveillance issues remain the biggest policy issue facing our industry. It would be shortsighted to believe that this report exhausts the studying that must be done on data issues as a whole.”

Dawson’s concerns are being addressed by the Obama administration with plans to halt bulk collection of phone data, however the effectiveness of this and related efforts is yet be seen.

The study also reviews federal research in privacy enhancing technologies, estimating a total of about $77 million in annual federal funding.

Other legislation identified as in need of review includes the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which the study notes was written before the arrival of cloud computing.

About the Author

Chris Burt is a WHIR contributor and writer of both fiction and non-fiction. He can be found on Twitter @afakechrisburt.

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