It might seem silly to worry about what police can decipher from our digital footprints at a time when most Americans are willing to share their personal lives with Facebook, their conversations with Google, and their every move with an Apple iPhone.
But there’s a big difference between deciding to relinquish one’s personal information, knowing that it might be used for advertising, and having police take that information without permission to search for evidence of a crime.
That’s why Senate Bill 178, now in the Assembly, is so important.
It would require law enforcement agencies to get warrants before searching someone’s mobile devices for incriminating email, text messages, documents, metadata, geolocation information and other private electronic communication. The same goes for requests for information from service providers, such as Google or Verizon.
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Carried by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, the bill would restore what should be a reasonable expectation of privacy – the same level we’ve long had for snail mail and landline phone calls.
The bill is not, however, a blanket prohibition against police rummaging through someone’s iPhone without a warrant. The bill provides wiggle room for officers to make exceptions, such as during an emergency when waiting for a warrant could put people at risk or when police believe evidence will be destroyed unless they act fast.
“We have to trust that they’re going to play honestly and tell the truth,” Leno said of police.
Courts can always decide later whether that data should be admitted as evidence. And that decision would be based on whether officers got it with a lawful search. Besides, Leno added, without that provision, his bill wouldn’t stand a chance of winning passage.
In 2012 and 2013, the California District Attorneys Association shot down three similar bills, all also carried by Leno. The group argued the changes would hamper investigations. Gov. Jerry Brown agreed and vetoed all three.
This time around, the district attorneys have had a change of heart. On Thursday, the group dropped its opposition to SB 178 and agreed to remain neutral. Let’s hope other law enforcement groups and Brown will follow the prosecutors’ lead.
The pressure to do so is certainly mounting, particularly in California.
Several Silicon Valley tech companies, vexed by a constant stream of government requests for data and eager to rebuild their reputations with consumers, have come out in support of Leno’s bill. That includes Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter, among others.
Then there are consumers who, with good reason, are worried about the security of their data online. The country has wrestled with government spying on Americans. Hackers have also ramped up their activities, stealing gigabytes of customers’ information from Target, health insurer Anthem Inc. and, most recently, the Ashley Madison site for philanderers.
Despite all that, don’t expect Americans to stop sharing every aspect of their lives online. Instead expect more calls for privacy. Legislators and law enforcement agencies, it’s your turn to answer.