Texas House says “Get a warrant!”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE May 20, 2013
CONTACT: Scott Henson
shenson at austin.rr.com
May 20, 2013 — Today the Texas House of Representatives voted to improve privacy protections for email and cell phone location data. SB 1052 by Carona was amended on the House floor to require government to secure a probable cause warrant before it can collect detailed cell-phone location data or the contents of email messages from cell-phone or internet companies.
“Most people are shocked when they learn that law enforcement or government agencies like the Department of Insurance can get the contents of email or find out everywhere you’ve been for the past two months by going directly to your service provider,” said Greg Foster, EFF Austin. Under the current legal framework, crafted before cell phones or email existed, government can get data directly from “third parties” like Verizon or Yahoo, and people are deemed to have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” in that data.
“I can’t remember the last time I wrote a paper letter to someone,” said Heather Fazio, Texans for Accountable Government. “Technology has now made letter writing easier, and delivery instantaneous. That’s a good thing. But how is it possible that my electronic letters don’t have the same level of protection from government intrusion that my paper letters have?”
It is possible, because the laws were written before the technology was invented. In the 1980s, no one thought people would store data more than six months. Older data was considered “abandoned” and that is still the basic framework today. Texas law requires agencies to get a warrant for the content of email that is less than 180 days old, but agencies can review older email and unsent draft email with a simple request to the email provider. Historic location data works basically the same way.
“If I record my daily activities in a diary, and keep it in a drawer in my house, government needs a warrant to come in and read it,” said Claire James, volunteer for the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition. “But the much more detailed record of my day created by constant transmissions from my smart phone to my cell company are readily available, and that’s just wrong.”
Some agencies testified that they do get a judicial order for location data under a lower standard than a warrant requires, but since most of this activity occurs in secret, the public has no idea whether such invasions of privacy actually result in criminal convictions.
EFF Austin, Texans for Accountable Government, the ACLU of Texas, the Texas Civil Rights Project and others this year joined together to create the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition, determined to reinstate 4th Amendment rights for the smart-phone age.
“That means government needs a warrant based on probable cause to read a person’s digital content or track a person’s location, regardless of where the data is stored or in what format,” said Coalition volunteer Scott Henson. “Today, the Texas House took a major step forward.”