Coming out of California in early October was great news in terms of personal privacy: the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) proclaimed victory as California passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. This act, supported by both Facebook and Google, mandates that the police must receive warrants before obtaining “digital records, including emails and texts, as well as user’s geographical location”. A video below from Money & Tech gives more insight into the bill.
While this news marks a big step towards our online privacy goals, some may not understand why the EFF would be so excited to claim this as such an important victory. One explanation for this confusion may be a lack of understanding surrounding the importance of the warrant and how a warrant is designed to protect us.
Importance of the warrant
At this past year’s Black Hat USA conference, Jennifer Granick gave the keynote speech detailing the importance of a warrant. Here, she spoke from her expertise as a successful defense attorney. The full talk can be found here. For a more detailed summary of her speech, read our article, The Dream of a Free and Open Internet is Dying – Jennifer Granick. In her speech, Granick explains that “[a] warrant means a judge has to authorize the search––basically it’s a guard against arbitrary government action. The police can’t just come in and run rampant through your house or just investigate you for no reason; it requires you to specifically describe the place being searched and the things being seized. So a warrant is also a guard against mass surveillance. When there are no warrant requirements, searches can be arbitrary and massive.”
We can see from Granick that warrants are a powerful tool in restricting government agencies and protecting the civil liberties on which we depend. This is an important notion for Granick, and we can see this later in her speech as she discusses the government coming back to us, the people, for our personal information. Rather than pushing for the use of crypto backdoors to work behind the scenes and out of our view, Granick believes that we should be aware of the ongoings and that the government should come to us for our personal information.
The month of October marked a victory for the rights of online privacy advocates in California, but there are still many places struggling to keep up and adapt to the growing technology that surrounds us and its attendant security concerns. It is our hope that California’s Electronic Communications Privacy Act will act as an example to all governments, with the goal being to re-establish restrictions on government control and power.
About Ryan Jeethan
Ryan is a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Arts & Business program focusing on UW’s unique Speech Communication program.