The battle to prevent police searches of smartphones, computers or tablets without a warrant has finally gained a key supporter: the tech industry. A new bill to be proposed by California state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) on Monday, backed by a bipartisan coalition, has garnered the support of Google, Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, and Microsoft.
The tech companies became active supporters of Leno’s efforts after a Supreme Court ruling last summer, in which the court ruled that police generally need a warrant to search a personal electronic device of a person they arrested.
Chief Justice John Roberts said such searches cannot be compared to police searches for contraband. “That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon,” he wrote. “Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together. Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.”
Leno’s bill flies in the face of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has vetoed previous legislation Leno successfully offered the legislature over the past three years that required police to secure warrants before searching cell phones seized during an arrest, using cell phone data to trace someone’s location, and perusing the cell phone’s electronic messages, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Brown claimed such legislation would hamper investigative efforts by police.
Leno spoke to KQED about his new bill, which he said “protects all electronic communications, including personal messages, passwords and PIN numbers, GPS data, photos, medical and financial information, contacts and metadata.”
“Privacy is not a partisan issue. We didn’t pursue all this corporate support the last time, but it makes sense this time.” he said. “And it’s good for tech companies. They don’t know what to do when they are asked for information, and they stand to lose credibility when they share information with the government. This will give them clear and consistent standards, and they will know that law enforcement must get a warrant for all of this, and short of that, they don’t have to do anything.”
The state senator acknowledged that the bill makes allowances for “exigent circumstances, if evidence is at risk of being lost, human life is at risk … they won’t need to go to court and prove probable cause.”
Mufaddal Ezzy, Google’s California Manager of Public Policy and Government Relations, praised the new bill, stating, “Law enforcement needs a search warrant to enter your house or seize letters from your filing cabinet — the same sorts of protections should apply to electronic data stored with internet companies. California’s electronic surveillance laws need to be brought in line with how people use the Internet today and provide them with the privacy they reasonably should expect.”
The Chronicle noted that the Supreme Court had already decided that GPS devices would be immune from police searches unless the police gained judicial approval.
Although 15 states have similar laws to Leno’s proposed legislation, his efforts will still be opposed by law enforcement groups and also likely by Brown.