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What is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a EasyTechJunkie contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon270007 — On May 20, 2012

What are an employees rights when another employee takes a picture of them against there permission for the reason trying to get them in trouble or embarrass them?

By anon254843 — On Mar 14, 2012

Can someone look through my phone while I am sleeping and obtain information and take pictures of my private text messages and then release them to the public?

By anon240948 — On Jan 16, 2012

No, not without violating the E.C.P.A and the Stored communications Act.

By anon161209 — On Mar 18, 2011

Can a volunteer fire department check your cell phone for text messages when no medical information was given

and this fire dept did not have a legal search warrant or a communications policy in force at the time of this incident? I advised them about the E.C.P.A. law and I was told that means nothing to us and we (the fire department) don't follow these laws! --smeyer

By anon122163 — On Oct 26, 2010

Can a employer require you to turn over your cell phone records without probable cause, to see if you were on the phone during a certain period of time? I had erased my records however, my employer still thinks I was using my phone.

By anon97284 — On Jul 19, 2010

Going through a divorce and i had my cell for five years was in my mother in law's name. They are now wanting to get my texts from my old phone that has been turned off for over six weeks. can they do that?

By anon78398 — On Apr 18, 2010

can a parent legally monitor a child's email communications and internet activity on a computer owned by the parent in the parent's home without the child's consent?

By anon65784 — On Feb 16, 2010

no, not without violating the ECPA.

By jthomas — On Feb 25, 2009

Can employees of a school legally take a child's cell phone and read or look at the contents of it without violating the electronic communications act?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a EasyTechJunkie contributor, Tricia...
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