Tech Industry Backs California Bill to Ban Warrantless Digital Searches

Police officers would need a warrant to search cellphones, tablets and computers under legislation being introduced Monday.  ( Chris Penalosa/Climate Watch)

A new effort launches this week at the state Capitol to make it illegal for a police officer in California to search a smartphone, computer or tablet without a warrant -- and this effort has the backing of the tech industry.

The bill will be introduced on Monday by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers. It's backed by Google, Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, Microsoft and other tech companies, as well as civil liberties and privacy advocates. The proposed law "protects all electronic communications, including personal messages, passwords and PIN numbers, GPS data, photos, medical and financial information, contacts and metadata," said Leno in an interview on Friday.

Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed similar bills by Leno before. But the San Francisco senator said he thinks this comprehensive approach will be harder for the governor to oppose -- even though Leno acknowledged that law enforcement groups are likely to fight it hard.

In part, he said, that's because the narrative has shifted: The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in, siding with privacy advocates in ruling that law enforcement should secure a warrant before searching a cellphone. Fifteen other states have passed similar laws.

"Privacy is not a partisan issue," said Leno. "We didn't pursue all this corporate support the last time, but it makes sense this time.  And it's good for tech companies."

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Leno said California's current laws, which treat electronic information differently from a citizen's other property, puts tech companies in an "untenable situation."

"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," he said. "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 proposal does have exemptions for "exigent circumstances," Leno said. "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."

In a written statement, a Google executive said the proposed law makes sense, given the other protections California law affords its citizens.

“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,” said Mufaddal Ezzy, Google’s California manager of public policy and government relations. “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.”

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