Why the FTC, America’s top privacy regulator, actually hates a privacy bill everyone else seems to want

Why the FTC, America’s top privacy regulator, actually hates a privacy bill everyone else seems to want

By now, Americans are all too familiar with the ways hackers can gain unauthorized entry into their personal accounts online. But did you know that the government can currently seize many of your e-mails without even getting a warrant?

That’s the result of a gaping loophole in a nearly 30-year-old law known as the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Despite its name, ECPA doesn’t do as much to protect your information as you might think. E-mails that have been sitting in your inbox for more than six months can, under the law, be seized by federal officials with little more than a request to your e-mail provider. It’s a holdover from the time before cloud storage made it easy to archive your entire life online.

Now, Congress is on the cusp of finally updating the law. But one unexpected critic of the proposed changes is the agency that’s become the nation’s biggest privacy watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission. It’s the FTC that went after Snapchat last year for accidentally leaking 4.6 million account holders’ information into the wild. In fact, the agency now has dozens of data security cases under its belt. The commission has even advised Congress on how to design privacy safeguards for commercial data brokers and facial recognition technology.

But in Senate testimony Wednesday, the FTC cautioned Congress against going too far with ECPA reform.

“The FTC is concerned that recent proposals could impede its ability to obtain certain information” from Internet companies, said Salsburg.

If the FTC is worried about not being able to do its job as a result of the changes on the table, what does it have in mind instead? A series of carve-outs and exceptions that would still allow law enforcement to compel data from Internet companies under certain conditions, such as if the subject of an investigation refuses to hand over the information himself.

Privacy advocates Wednesday said that amounted to little more than the status quo, and accused the agencies of dragging their feet on meaningful reform.

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