Tech-savvy residents of the Bay Area carry around smartphones and tablet computers, devices that have allowed us to do vast amounts of work on the go while staying connected with friends and family. But as people walk around with these devices, they are collecting large amounts of data, including where they are at any given time — information that reveals much about our personal and professional lives.
Many people would be surprised to know that police officers can, without a warrant, gather location information from electronic devices, including cellphones, tablets and car navigation devices. This information can obviously help aid them in crime fighting, by placing a person at the scene of a crime or tracing his or her interaction with other people.
But most other such searches of property by law enforcement officials require a warrant — a judicial process that requires the approval of a court or magistrate. The system in place for other searches and seizures forces the police to show probable cause. However, the collection of location information from mobile devices contains no such safeguard.
Senate Bill 1434 by State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would have required law enforcement officers to use the same warrant process they use for other personal information when gathering such location data. The bill passed both houses of the state Legislature, before landing on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.
Leno’s bill also would have required authorities to record and disclose in a timely manner all requests for such location information from mobile devices. Service providers would have had to disclose the number of times location information was handed over to law enforcement, the number of times such requests were denied, and the number of users whose information was surrendered.
With smartphone use a burgeoning area of contemporary life, Leno’s bill makes sense. It would protect people’s privacy by making law enforcement go through proper channels to gain access to very personal information. Providing transparency into data about such requests also would allow people and privacy advocates to watch for abuse by law enforcement officials.
But people will have no such protections in California since Brown vetoed the legislation. “It may be that legislative action is needed to keep the law current in our rapidly evolving electronic age,” Brown wrote in his veto message. “But I am not convinced that this bill strikes the right balance between the operational needs of law enforcement and individual expectations of privacy.”
Requiring police officers to get a warrant for searches of personal information is not a terribly high bar. So it is disappointing that Brown does not support a level of privacy protections on par with those already existing. Technology always evolves faster than legislation, and Leno’s bill would have been a step toward protecting privacy and information in a sector of life that has sped ahead of laws on the books.
We hope Leno will reintroduce the bill during the next legislative cycle, and that Brown can then be convinced the error of his ways.