Google leads call to change privacy law in US

An unlikely coalition of technology companies and campaign groups is calling for an overhaul of digital privacy laws in the US, a move it says would better safeguard businesses and individuals from the prying eyes of the government.

The group, which includes Google, Microsoft, the American Civil Liberties Union and others, on Tuesday launched a campaign called Digital Due Process, which it described as “an effort to modernise surveillance laws for the internet age”.

The coalition is looking to rework the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was passed in 1986 and governs what kinds of private digital information the government has access to and how they may obtain it. The act was passed long before the internet became popular. Businesses and individuals are using it to store sensitive data, and it has become outdated, the coalition says.

“Due to dramatic changes in technology, particularly the emergence in location- based services, the transfer of huge amounts of data to the cloud (remote storage), [and the wide use of e-mail], the law has become outdated and needs to be updated,” said Jim Dempsey, vice-president for public policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Richard Salgado, Google’s senior counsel, said the need for reform was growing more pressing as individuals and businesses embraced cloud-based storage solutions. “We’re seeing a tremendous change in the volume of data people are uploading to services, the sensitivity of that data and how that data play a role in the day-to-day lives of people,” he said.

Under existing laws, the US government grants a great deal of protection to digital information stored on local personal or business computers. Mike Hintze, associate General Counsel for Microsoft, said the same protections should apply to private data stored in the cloud.

“As that technological reality permeates our society and people start moving documents from their file drawers and into the cloud, we just don’t believe that the balance between privacy and law enforcement should be fundamentally turned on its head,” he said.

The coalition is calling for laws stating that the government must obtain a search warrant before obtaining any private communications stored online, or tracking an individual’s location using data from a mobile device.

It also wants the government to demonstrate to a court that the data it seeks are relevant to a criminal investigation before monitoring individual communications or obtaining data about a group of people.

Mr Dempsey said the coalition had already had meetings with the White House, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the justice and commerce departments. But he said law enforcement agencies were not ready to embrace these proposals, as it might impede some of their intelligence-gathering efforts.

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