Why Don't the Legal Standards That Govern the Privacy of Letters Apply to Emails?

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Should your emails have the same legal protection as your letters?


We assume the answer is yes, but the real answer is no. As the New York Times points out, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act gives law enforcement officers a much easier path to your private online life than your offline one. As a greater share of our affairs have moved to the Internet, this means that there has been a mass erosion of civil liberties sanctioned by a law passed back in 1986 when almost no one had email and the Web had yet to be invented.

For example, the Feds don't need a warrant to read emails that are more than 180 days old, whereas if you had letters in your home, they'd need a court order. Leaving aside the time element, which seems plucked from thin air, it seems impossible to justify why one mode of communication would receive greater legal protection than another. In this case, the law should not take the medium for the message. 
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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