Many people assume their emails, documents, photos and other information on the internet are private. But that may not be true if they are stored on servers belonging to internet companies. Known as "cloud computing," the system gives people access to their files from anywhere in the world. But a coalition of privacy and technology groups is working to ensure that information is kept private in the United States.
Consumers like cloud computing because of the convenience and fun of getting email and social network information anywhere. One research survey found that almost 70 percent of Americans use at least one cloud service.
The Electronic Privacy Communications Act of 1986 is supposed to protect electronic communication. However, the law is more than 30 years old and does not cover cloud computing because it didn't exist at the time.
The American Civil Liberties Union wants to make sure the "cloud" does not rain on people's privacy. The group is part of the Digital Due Process Coalition that is working to update on-line privacy laws.
"We need to see this the actual law passed by Congress, this EPCA, Electronic Privacy Communications Act made much more stronger, brought up to date. It's completely out of date," Jay Stanley, privacy expert at the ACLU, stated.
Stanley says inconsistencies in the law have made it easier for law enforcement and government agencies to demand that service providers give them consumer data stored on cloud servers.
Ryan Radia is with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington. He says providers will release information without the consumer's knowledge. "The more data government has, the better it can enforce crimes. But it also has some pretty significant disadvantages. First and foremost, a lot of times the information that's being handed over to the government isn't information that pertains to a crime," he explained.
Radia says the coalition is not trying to stop law enforcement from getting information to capture criminals or terrorists, but to give the average person the right to privacy. "And so, this isn't about crippling law enforcement or making it so criminals can get away with crime with impunity. This about ensuring we have a set of reasonable constraints to protect people's civil liberties," he added.
A poll by the Pew Internet and American Life Project says 65 percent of Americans are concerned that law enforcement agencies could access their files. Project director Lee Rainie says most people don't realize how vulnerable their emails are. "When, in fact, it's going out on someone else's servers. It's going out on a backbone that can be monitored, and so, there are ways in which the law enforcement community can capture some of these communications and analyze them," he said.
Some Internet companies are worried that concerns about privacy could hold back the growth of cloud computing.
"We become afraid to use those services. We don't trust the fact that when we put our data into one of these cloud service providers that it is actually going to be protected," Berin Szoka, with the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, says companies could lose business.
Critics say that e-mails and other information sent through cloud providers are no longer private anyway, just by virtue of being on the web. But members of the Digital Due Process Coalition say sending an e-mail should be no different from mailing a letter that is protected by law from being opened.
So far, there is no pending legislation to update the Electronic Privacy Communications Act. But members of the coalition are holding discussions with lawmakers on possible changes to the bill.