Digital info needs protection from government operating without a warrant

The slow erosion of personal privacy has become one of the fundamental legal issues of the 21st century.

Personal technology and social media have acclimated us to the practice of constantly sharing portions of our lives with millions of strangers we have never met, whether through a Yelp review or a vacation photo on Facebook.

This relaxation of privacy norms has permeated society, causing us to become lackadaisical about our privacy standards. As technology has encroached into our lives, we are sharing more, oftentimes protecting our privacy less.

Because privacy laws have not caught up with the expansion of personal technology, this ebb of standards comes alongside increased government surveillance. As a result, government agencies have been using legal gaps in our privacy rights to expand their surveillance in the name of public safety.

As new revelations of pervasive Department of Homeland Security surveillance have hit the news, citizens and lawmakers have rushed to close the privacy gaps in federal and state law.

As technology has advanced, personal possessions no longer are limited to what one holds in a safe or in files in a home office. Photos, emails, contact information and banking information have become as much of our personal property as the photo albums or letters we keep in our homes.

Until now, because of a legal gray area in defining electronic data as possessions, one’s electronic data has not been granted the same privacy protections as physical possessions.

Now we must add clarity in this gray area and reinforce that our Fourth Amendment right to privacy includes electronic data in the same way it always has included personal property.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is a proud progressive. I am a proud conservative. On this issue, we have agreed to jointly author the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

This bill would provide much-needed protections for mobile devices, emails, text messages, digital documents and location information from government agents operating without a warrant. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act would extend the appropriate warrant protection for digital information.

If this act becomes law, information from personal electronic devices, including location information, could be accessed by law enforcement only with a warrant from a judge. This mirrors the current process for law enforcement to search and seize physical property.

Privacy is, and must continue to be, a bipartisan issue. Our founding fathers remembered the warrantless search and seizure of private property by the British army they had endured. To safeguard against the practice, they inscribed the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

The California Legislature has been on the forefront of privacy issues. Last year, then-Sen. Ted Lieu and I authored another privacy bill, Senate Bill 828, A Citizen’s Protection Act.

It protects the Fourth Amendment rights of 38 million Californians by prohibiting any California state agency or employee from working with the National Security Agency to gather private information about citizens without a warrant, due process or probable cause. Now, at the beginning of the 2015 legislative session, Democrats and Republicans again join together to support common-sense privacy legislation.

As our society becomes increasingly comfortable with sharing our personal lives online, we must understand that there is a great difference between opting to share our information and having our information monitored without our consent. That’s why Leno and I are carrying the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which we believe is consistent with the founding fathers’ vision for a free society.

State Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, represents the 36th Senate District.