The Electronic Communication Privacy (ECPA) of 1986 creates limited statutory privacy rights for Internet users. First enacted in 1968, the law originally sought to prevent wiretapping by determining limits on electronic surveillance. By 1986, growing federal concern about privacy in an age of new communication technology led to a major overhaul. Lawmakers amended the ECPA to extend its privacy protection to several forms of contemporary electronic communication, from cell phones and pagers to computer transmissions and e-mail.
On the Internet the ECPA protects both digital transmissions and stored messages. In general, the law prohibits their interception or disclosure by third parties. It spells out several separate offenses:
- Intercepting or endeavoring to intercept communication
- Disclosing communication without consent
- Using electronic, mechanical, or other devices to intercept communication
- Intercepting communication for commercial purposes
- Intercepting communication for the purpose of impeding criminal investigations
Besides criminal penalties, the statute authorizes that injured parties may bring civil suits for any damages suffered, punitive damages, and other relief.