By Claire Guthrie Gastañaga Executive Director
You may not realize this, but the government and corporations regularly access our personal, private information – and even that of our children – without our knowledge or consent, and on a daily basis. They use it for profit. They use it to track our location. That’s right—it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.
These regular incursions into our privacy are made easier by the fact that our laws have failed to keep up with new technologies. As technology has advanced, our digital privacy laws remain stuck in the digital Dark Ages. This means that emails, text messages, location information and all of our digital data have been open to warrantless police surveillance.
Virginia’s Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) and Del. Mark Dudenhefer (R-Stafford), along with chief House co-patron Del. Rich Anderson (R-Woodbridge), have taken a critical step forward to ensure Virginians are no longer vulnerable to such government overreach. The Virginia Electronic Privacy Act (ECPA) would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before accessing electronic information about our identities, where we go, who we know and what we do. This bill will provide reasonable privacy protections for our emails and other electronic information where federal law has failed to do so.
Virginia residents should know that the government is working to protect their privacy, not violate it, and the majority of Americans across the country feel the same way. A 2014 study from the Pew Research Center found that that 75 percent of adults believe that their emails, text messages and location information are sensitive, and that 80 percent of adults feel Americans are rightly concerned about the government monitoring of Internet communications. Another recent poll found 90 percent of Americans want the next president of the United States to prioritize “protecting privacy so [Americans] have more control over our personal information.”
Such widespread, nationwide support reinforces what we already know: Privacy issues transcend party lines. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives alike all want to be in control of their own privacy.
Senator Petersen, Delegate Dudenhefer and Delegate Anderson join a diverse bipartisan coalition of elected officials and citizens from sixteen states and the District of Columbia who have come together to tell the nation they care about digital privacy and are willing to fight for it. The message from these states is clear: Where Congress is unwilling or unable to act to protect Americans’ privacy, or takes actions that are insufficient, the states are more than willing to step up and fill the void.
Other states such as California, Colorado, Maine, Texas and Utah have already passed laws similar to Virginia’s ECPA. It doesn’t matter if you’re a blue or red state—people from all political stripes believe that using stealthy, secret or concealed technologies to access our data without our knowledge or consent is simply not an acceptable practice. Without a warrant, or our express permission, government simply shouldn’t be searching through our private information.
The guiding principle for privacy in the United States in 2016 is the same as it was in 1776: “Get a warrant, get permission, or get out.”
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