California passes the country's best-ever online privacy law

Governor Jerry Brown has signed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which "bars any state law enforcement agency or other investigative entity from compelling a business to turn over any metadata or digital communications—including emails, texts, documents stored in the cloud—without a warrant. It also requires a warrant to track the location of electronic devices like mobile phones, or to search them."

This has enormous and far-reaching implications for Californians' privacy, coming in the midst of extensive, secretive surveillance programs that are being rolled out at the municipal level. The cops in Oakland use license cams to track every driver's every move in city limits, and are building a "Domain Awareness Center" that will combine comprehensive surveillance of mobile phones, cameras, hidden microphones, social media and other sources.


Across the state, law enforcement have deployed Stingrays, which track residents locations by covertly spying on their cellphones (the use of Stingrays is bound by nondisclosure agreements, and federal law enforcement has gone so far as to raid local law enforcement to prevent documents regarding Stingray use from being entered into court records). The LAPD went even further, secretly using "Dirtboxes" — Stingrays that are mounted under low-flying airplanes and used to surveil whole regions simultaneously. Much of this equipment was purchased with civil asset forfeiture money.

We worry about undeveloped, undemocratic states like Ethiopia becoming "turnkey surveillance states" who are able to effect NSA-style surveillance by buying off-the-shelf equipment from western companies. In the absence of CALECPA, many of the small towns (and big cities) in California are becoming turnkey-surveillance-municipalities, run by semi-competent, untransparent, often corrupt local politicians and cops who have all the surveillance capacity of Ethiopia's despots.

CALECPA is huge, in other words. Now it's time to get its equivalents passed in the other 49 states, and then made federal law.

"For what logical reason should a handwritten letter stored in a desk drawer enjoy more protection from warrantless government surveillance than an email sent to a colleague or a text message to a loved one?" Leno said earlier this year. "This is nonsensical and violates the right to liberty and privacy that every Californian expects under the constitution."

The bill enjoyed widespread support among civil libertarians like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation as well as tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Twitter, which have headquarters in California. It also had huge bipartisan support among state lawmakers.

"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," Leno said in a statement today. "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."

California Now Has the Nation's Best Digital Privacy Law [Kim Zetter/Wired]