California mulls law to protect your e-privates from warrant-free cops

You wanna see my iPhone, officer? Go ask a judge

California is considering a new law that would make police searches of electronic devices such as phones and laptops subject to the same controls as filing cabinets, drawers and other physical objects.

State Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco has put forward a bill that would require the authorities to obtain a search warrant before they can pull information off your computer or smartphone.

Dubbed the "California Electronics Communication Privacy Act" (Cal-EPCA), SB-178 [PDF] would apply to text messages, emails and GPS data.

"The personal files in your desk drawer at home cannot be seized without a warrant, but the digital files on your smartphone and tablet, no matter how sensitive, do not have the same protection," Leno, a Democrat, said in introducing his bill.

"This bill strikes the right balance between safeguarding Californians against improper government intrusion of their electronic data and protecting the right of law enforcement to use technology when it is needed to protect public safety."

The law only extends to California and would not affect the controversial data collection practices allowed under the US Patriot Act. But if it passes, California would join a list of over a dozen other states that have decided on greater legal protections for electronic information.

California governor Jerry Brown has vetoed similar laws in the past, although this time the Bill has the backing of several Silicon Valley giants including Google, Apple and Facebook, as well as advocacy groups the EFF and the ACLU.

"Californians shouldn’t be forced to choose between using smartphones, email, social networks or any new technology and keeping their personal lives private," ACLU California technology and civil liberties policy director Nicole Ozer said in a canned statement.

"Especially after revelations of warrantless surveillance by the NSA, it is time for California to catch up with other states across the nation, including Texas and Maine, which have already updated their privacy laws for the modern digital world."

Leno's bill still has to pass through both houses in the golden state and be signed by the governor before it becomes law. The bill is set to go before committee in the upcoming Spring session. ®

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