California Digital Privacy Laws Boosted, Protecting Consumers From Big Brother, Big Business

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California has leaped to the forefront of protecting digital privacy — from Big Brother, big business and even your Smart TV — as Gov. Jerry Brown signed a raft of bills aimed at taming a world of increasingly surreptitious technology.


The new laws will prevent state and local law enforcement from snooping on emails without a warrant and alert the public when they use high-tech surveillance to tap into cellphone calls. The laws also prohibit paparazzi from flying drones over private property and make sure TV manufacturers warn viewers that voice commands may be recorded — but stop companies from using the information to target ads.


The sweeping legislation, mostly signed this week, is part of an ongoing effort by lawmakers to keep up with the rapidly evolving intrusive technology in what's become an increasingly digital world.

"It's a very exciting day for privacy in California," said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California. "Everybody is using technology is so many diverse ways. But electronic privacy law in the state and federal level have not been updated in decades.''

Grabbing most of the attention — and privacy advocates' praise — is Senate Bill 178, jointly authored by Sens. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Joel Anderson, R-Alpine.


The California Electronic Communications Privacy Act for the first time requires a warrant for law enforcement to access private electronic communications such as emails, text messages and GPS data that are stored in the cloud and on smartphones, tablets, laptops and other digital devices.


The ACLU co-sponsored the bill along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Silicon Valley tech giants Google, Facebook, Apple and others — which have been inundated by requests from law enforcement — supported the legislation.


"It's now providing the same sort of protections to your personal information that used to apply routinely in the brick-and-mortar world,'' said John Simpson, a privacy expert at Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica-based consumer protection advocacy group.

"I'm sitting here at my desk with all kinds of paper filed away,'' said Simpson on Friday. "Before now, if law enforcement wanted to get access to those things, they had to get a search warrant.''

But now, he said, much of that information is stored electronically in the cloud. SB 178 recognizes that with the new technology in the digital age, "if the police want to get that information, they have to go to a judge and go through the process of getting a warrant, which is as it should be.''

However, the new state law — which Leno says is more comprehensive than any similar law in the country — does not require federal investigators to obtain a warrant for electronic searches.

It's one reason privacy experts are working to get the federal government to adopt such a measure.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, authored two bills dealing with technology-driven intelligence gathering after seeing privacy issues come up at the local level.

Senate Bill 34, signed into law Tuesday, dealt with license plate readers ,while the other, Senate Bill 741, signed into law Thursday, has to do with cellphone intercept devices popularly known as Stingrays. Both bills require agencies to notify the public they are acquiring the technologies and how they plan to use them — but the bills don't require public input.

Hill said he was troubled to learn that automatic license plate readers were being used by nearly 60 agencies around the state, and only eight had given opportunity for public input and 16 had a policy available for review. The issue was recently revisited in San Jose, where some council members want to attach readers to garbage trucks in order to find stolen vehicles.

Hill said his bill regulating license plate readers will require agencies to "have a policy in place on how they're going to use it, what they're going to do with the info and how secure it will be. Today there is none of that."

The cell tracking devices came to Hill's attention in February when he read that Santa Clara County had quietly approved getting a Stingray — technology that was already in use by Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco and a host of other jurisdictions, although none had provided any information about the devices, citing federally mandated security restrictions.

"That fried me," said Hill, who authored the legislation days after he found out. "When I heard them say they can't reveal what the policy is because they have a nondisclosure agreement, and then say they couldn't even disclose the nondisclosure agreement, that's just wrong."

Concerns come from the fact that the Stingray collects information from everyone with a cellphone within its range, regardless of whether they are the subject of an investigation. The devices can track not only a person's location, but who a person is calling, and some can capture the content of texts or conversations.

Santa Clara County ultimately did not get a Stingray because the manufacturer would not divulge any information about the device, making it impossible for county officials to conduct a transparent process that they pledged to undertake before using the tracker.

Hill said that with the new laws, those restrictions will have to change in order for agencies to acquire and use the tracker.

California's new laws will also take aim at other snoopers: Brown signed Assembly Bill 856, by Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, which defines flying a drone over private property as trespassing. Violators can be hit with a civil fine of up to $50,000.

Lawmakers also took aim at protecting unsuspecting consumers from new technologies that allow viewers to talk to their TVs.

Assembly Bill 1116, by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, is believed to be the first in the country to require manufacturers to inform viewers that their voices may be recorded and transmitted back to companies. It preserves the ability to control a television with voice commands, or to do a Google search using a television, but prohibits manufacturers from using recorded speech to generate targeted advertisements.

"It's more than a little creepy,'' said Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. "The idea was you would be able to give your TV voice commands, but the thing is, the voice commands were going farther than just staying at the TV set.'' The bill, he said, "responded promptly and very appropriately with consumer protection.''

Contact Tracy Seipel at 408-920-5343. Follow her at

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