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VA Legislature Considering Bills That Would Require Search Warrant for Electronic Files


California has approved a new set of laws to protect the privacy of data, and with half of all e-mails in this country passing through data centers in Virginia, this could be the next state to take action. The legislature is considering bills that would require police to get a search warrant if they want a look at your electronic files.

The law is clear about what police need to search your house or car.

Usually, a warrant is required. But what about electronic data? At the

American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, director Claire Gastenaga says law enforcement has pretty easy access.

"If I give you a file, and you're not a lawyer or a priest or somebody with a privilege, then the police can come and get that file, or if you haven't purged your e-mail on Google after 18 months it's considered abandoned property, and the police can go and get it without a warrant."

Which is why her group is supporting the Electronic Communications Privacy Act - or ECPA - a bill designed to protect personal data. It's a measure supported by the tech industry and already approved in California.  Virginia isn't usually a trendsetter, but on matters involving hi-tech surveillance, Gastenaga says this state has been a leader.

"We got the drone warrant requirement passed. We got the stingray warrant requirement passed and the real time cell phone tracking. Delegate Chris

Peace last year got a bill passed that constrains employers from doing what we call shoulder surfing, which is intruding into your private social media, demanding your passwords and that kind of thing."

The ACLU is also backing a bill to establish uniform guidelines for police departments using body cameras. A recent survey found varied rules from one county or city to the next.

"You have different rights to see the video of you, or to ask not to be

videotaped, or to inspect the records, depending on the jurisdiction, and when you're talking about public records, every citizen should have the same access. It shouldn't be different, and it shouldn't depend on the

Commonwealth's Attorney or the police department to decide."

Gastenaga says police departments are likely to resist some proposed restrictions on them, but she believes we need to strike a balance between law enforcement and the right to privacy.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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