California puts email privacy law on the books

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California enacted its own email privacy law on Thursday night, as advocates press Congress to take up national reform. 

Gov. Edmund "Jerry" Brown (D) signed the California Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which passed out of the state assembly last month. The bill, requiring law enforcement to obtain a search warrant to access certain electronic communication, was approved alongside dozens of other bills. 

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Advocates say the state law will require law enforcement in the state to obtain a warrant to force online providers from accessing Californians’ emails, texts and geographical location data. They say it will apply to a person’s own device and “the online services that store your data,” with some emergency exceptions. 

“After months of pressure from public interest groups, media organizations, privacy advocates, tech companies, and thousands of members of the public, California’s elected leaders have updated the state’s privacy laws so that they are in line with how people actually use technology today,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in astatement

The group, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and large technology companies in Silicon Valley, pressed for the update.

Passage was cleared after a number of state law enforcement associations and district attorneys dropped opposition last month. 

“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,” said State Sen. Mark Leno (D), whose district is located in San Francisco. 

Privacy advocates and technology companies have complained that the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act is outdated and allows law enforcement to use a subpoena, rather than a warrant, to get online service providers to turn over customers’ electronic communication that is older than 180 days.  

While federal agencies and the Justice Department say they don’t use the authority because of prior case law, technology companies say it creates uncertainty as they try to repair customer trust after the 2013 U.S. surveillance leaks from former government contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden. 

In Congress, legislation to update the act has more than 300 co-sponsors, but it has not received any committee or floor action in either chamber.