The Electronic Communications Privacy Act is a law enacted by the US Congress in 1986 that sets provisions on what privacy rights people have when they use telephones, computers, cellphones or other means of electric transmission of communication like faxes or texting. In 1986, the provisions did not include some of the newer forms of communication developed since then. Yet these communication forms, like text messaging, are still covered under the law.
Essentially, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act maintains that it is illegal to use any form of electronic communication to convict or accuse someone of a crime without obtaining a prior search warrant. It is also illegal to listen in on communications to obtain a search warrant, or to interrupt transmissions. Doing so is considered illegal search and seizure.
For example, the police cannot use a taped phone conversation with a suspect without first advising the suspect of the taping. In most cases, unless a valid warrant has been obtained, if the person does not agree to be taped then the material gained from the conversation cannot be used. A private citizen taping another person’s conversation without their consent also cannot be submitted as evidence, in many cases, though it may be used to establish the right to obtain warrants.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act has undergone some minor changes since the establishment of the Patriot Act after 11 September 2001. In most cases, however, the act forbids the government from listening in on the conversations of private citizens with first obtaining a warrant.
This legislation received additional attention because the Supreme Court ruled that President George W. Bush violated the act by ordering recordings of conversations without first obtaining a warrant. The violation is an impeachable offense, yet most Democrats concede that their failure to control the House and Senate is likely to mean there would not be enough votes to impeach Bush.
Others feel that, though the President violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, he was right to do so in the interest of protecting the nation from possible terrorist activity. This is a considerable argument at the moment, which is not completely partisan. Some Republicans felt this violation should be grounds for impeachment and some Democrats feel it should not.