Missouri the first state with a constitution protecting electronic privacy

Josh Peterson
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Aug 07, 2014 10:07 AM
Missouri the first state with a constitution protecting electronic privacy

By Josh Peterson | Watchdog.org

Privacy advocates scored another win after 75 percent of Missouri voters chose in Tuesday’s primary election to amend their state constitution to protect electronic privacy rights.

HANDS OFF: Missouri is now the first state whose residents' electronic privacy rights are protected by a state constitution.

HANDS OFF: Missouri is now the first state whose residents’ electronic privacy rights are protected by a state constitution.

As clocks in Missouri neared midnight and over 97 percent of precincts reported their results, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri tweeted out in confidence, “It’s safe to go to bed.”

The amendment ascribes the same privacy protections to residents’ electronic communications and data as to their homes and physical belongings, including requiring law enforcement to have probable cause before even attempting to obtain a warrant to search through a person’s email, text messages and private Facebook posts.

Mike Maharrey, executive director of OffNow.org, a privacy advocacy nonprofit organization, said in a statement that Missouri voters “sent a very clear message: either get a warrant or keep your nose out of our email and cell phone records.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recommended its readers vote against the amendment, stating “The reality, however, is the U.S. Supreme Court already did that, making the amendment unnecessary. We’d rather see this issue dealt with at the federal level.”

Duane Lester of the Missouri Torch blasted the Post-Dispatch’s stance as a “stunning display of willful ignorance.”

“Why is this amendment even on the ballot?” he wrote. “Because the federal government is spying on us.”

Missouri State Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, sponsor of the bill that put the amendment on the ballot, tweeted Tuesday evening, “Amendment 9 is getting overwhelming support that reflects the emotion felt about (p)rivacy erosion.”

The nation’s High Court ruled in June that law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant before searching through the contents of a suspect’s cell phone. The ruling doesn’t prevent federal and state law enforcement agencies from requesting data about suspects from private Internet companies.

The global outrage sparked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s electronic surveillance programs, however, has motivated major Internet giants to publicly distance themselves from the U.S. intelligence community and be more transparent about how they handle user data requests from the U.S. government.

A federal-level effort is also underway to update the nation’s privacy law, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, to account for the changes in digital communications technology since the law was first enacted.

But Maharrey expressed confidence Missouri’s new amendment will also help protect its residents from federal level intrusion.

“By prohibiting state agents from “accessing” warrantless electronic data, it makes such data gathered by federal agencies such as the NSA and shared with state and local law enforcement inadmissible in state criminal proceedings,” wrote Maharrey in a blog post, recalling a Reuters investigation that revealed how a secret DEA unit was collaborating with the NSA and state law enforcement agencies.

“This isn’t just paranoia or speculation. We know for a fact that this goes on,” Maharrey said in a statement.

Missouri can’t stop the NSA from collecting the information, but it darn sure just put a stop to its use. I call that a big win for privacy,” he said.

Contact Josh Peterson at jpeterson@watchdog.orgFollow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson