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Rights group calls Californians to support the passing of cellphone privacy bill

The California bill requires police to get a warrant before searching cell phones, according to Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a US-based civil liberties group. EFF said their organization is proud to support SB 914 and is calling for more supporters in passing the bill in the US Senate.

The filing of SB 914 is a response to a January decision of the California Supreme Court in People versus Diaz. In that case, the court allowed police officers to search any person’s mobile phone after they had been arrested under a narrow exception to the US constitution’s Fourth Amendment warrant requirement that authorizes law enforcement officers to search the area immediately around an arrested person.

EFF said this exception has two traditional rationales: ensuring officer safety by allowing a search for deadly weapons, and protecting evidence from immediate destruction. By allowing the warrantless search of a cell phone under this exception, the Court gave officers a wide berth to sift through all the private data and information people keep in their cell phones – emails, text messages, call history, websites they’ve visited, and their calendars, to name just a few examples –regardless of whether the police think there was evidence of the crime on the mobile phone.

Courts across the country have been arguing with this loophole and have reached a conflicting outcome, with some courts permitting warrantless searches of cell phones and others do not.

EFF recently filed before the Oregon Supreme Court and argued that warrantless searches of cell phones incident to arrest violate the constitutional right to privacy. They said that with rapid advancement in technology, cell phones are now more than just devices used to communicate. Instead, they harbor a treasure trove of personal information far more than a person’s call history, such as messages, photographs, financial records and web browsing history.

What’s more is that many smartphones can keep track of an individual’s location at all times, the group said. This means that every person you have contacted, every place you have been, every message you have received and every transaction you have done on your phone is viewable by any officer who arrests you, regardless of whether those actions are applicable in any way to the arrest.

EFF said this is troubling because cell phones pose no danger to the police, the threat of destruction of evidence can be easily remedied through simple preservation methods, and many such arrests do not result in criminal prosecution at all.

The bill SB 914 is a proactive attempt to legitimize constitutional protection and reverse Diaz’s dangerous implementation. Filed by California Senator Mark Leno and sponsored by the Northern California ACLU, SB 914 balances law enforcement needs with people’s rights to privacy by authorizing the police to look through mobile phones only when they have filed for a search warrant on the phone.

The group said that the bill is expected to be on the Senate floor very soon. They implore that all Californians should tell their state lawmakers to support SB 914 and tell law enforcement that if they want access to the personal and private data stored on mobile phones; they need to come back with a search warrant.