The Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Wire Electronic Communications Act are commonly referred together as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986. The ECPA updated the Federal Wiretap Act of 1968, which addressed interception of conversations using “hard” telephone lines, but did not apply to interception of computer and other digital and electronic communications. Several subsequent pieces of legislation, including The USA PATRIOT Act, clarify and update the ECPA to keep pace with the evolution of new communications technologies and methods, including easing restrictions on law enforcement access to stored communications in some cases.
General Provisions. The ECPA, as amended, protects wire, oral, and electronic communications while those communications are being made, are in transit, and when they are stored on computers. The Act applies to email, telephone conversations, and data stored electronically.
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “The structure of the SCA reflects a series of classifications that indicate the drafters’ judgments about what kinds of information implicate greater or lesser privacy interests. For example, the drafters saw greater privacy interests in the content of stored emails than in subscriber account information. Similarly, the drafters believed that computing services available ‘to the public’ required more strict [sic] regulation than services not available to the public…To protect the array of privacy interests identified by its drafters, the [Act] offers varying degrees of legal protection depending on the perceived importance of the privacy interest involved. Some information can be obtained from providers with a subpoena; other information requires a special court order; and still other information requires a search warrant. In addition, some types of legal process require notice to the subscriber, while other types do not.”