Big Privacy Victory As Gov. Brown Signs CalECPA

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Californians won a major privacy victory Thursday that catches protections up with modern technology.  Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 178, the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalECPA), into law.

It will require that law enforcement get a warrant before poking around in our digital records.  If the cops want to search your desk for letters and files, they need a warrant.  But who relies on paper files and letters these days?

CalECPA provides our digital records with the same sort of protection and requirement for warrants as paper files.  The law covers not only your own devices but also online services that store your data.  Google can’t turn over you email unless the cops get a warrant.

Under the outdated federal Electronic Communications Act, law enforcement authorities do not need a search warrant  to obtain sensitive information like emails that have been stored on a server for more than 180 days, detailed location information generated by your phone, and sensitive metadata about who you communicate with. Activists are pushing to update  the federal ECPA, but now SB 178 provides protection to Californians. Only two other states — Maine and Utah — offer the protections.

Brown has recently signed other privacy related bills into law. They include AB 964 by Assemblymember Ed Chau (D-Arcadia), which defines encryption;  AB 1116 by the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection, which would prohibit the use of voice recognition in a connect television without notice; SB 34 by Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), which provides protections on the use of data gathered by automated license plate recognition systems and SB 570 by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), which would strengthen data breach notification requirements.

Here is what the SB 178’s authors had to say about the bill signed Thursday:

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco): “For too long, California’s digital privacy laws have been stuck in the Dark Ages, leaving our personal emails, text messages, photos and smartphones increasingly vulnerable to warrantless searches. That ends today with the Governor’s signature of CalECPA, a carefully crafted law that protects personal information of all Californians. The bill also ensures that law enforcement officials have the tools they need to continue to fight crime in the digital age.”

Sen. Joel Anderson (R-Alpine):  “Senator Leno and I helped bridge the gap between progressives and conservatives to make the privacy of Californians a top priority this year. This bipartisan bill protects Californians’ basic civil liberties as the Fourth Amendment and the California Constitution intended.”

The governor’s action is a true victory for Californians’ privacy rights.  As has been the case so many times in the past when California has led the fight for privacy protections, perhaps this will spur action at the federal level.

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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