03/22/2013 03:20 pm ET

California Email Privacy Bill Would Curtail Warrantless Online Government Surveillance

SAN FRANCISCO -- Taking a stand for online privacy, California State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill that would require all law enforcement agencies operating under the state's jurisdiction to receive a warrant before reading the email of private citizens.

"No law enforcement agency could obtain someone's mail or letters that were delivered to their home without first securing a search warrant, but that same protection is surprisingly not extended to our digital life," said Leno in a statement. "Both state and federal privacy laws have failed to keep up with the modern electronic age and government agencies are frequently able to access sensitive and personal information, including email, without adequate oversight."

As per the nearly three decade-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act, law enforcement officials can request service providers turn over emails without first obtaining a search warrant as long as those emails have either been saved on a server for over 180 days or the messages have already been opened by the intended recipient.

"All we're saying is you need to go to court, make the case that there is a reasonable cause to believe that some illegal activity is ongoing," Leno told ABC Los Angeles.

In addition to protecting email, Leno's bill would also apply to messages and profile information stored on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Last year, Leno introduced a similar bill that would have required California officials to obtain a warrant before gathering location information generated from cell phones or other mobile devices. His measure, however, was vetoed by California Governor Jerry Brown. "I am not convinced that this bill strikes the right balance between the operation needs of law enforcement and individual expectations of privacy," wrote Brown in his veto message.

In a post on the company's official blog late last year, Google Senior Policy Analyst Dorothy Chou noted that requests for the internet giant's data from governments across the globe have increased significantly in recent years, with nearly 2,000 inquiries for specific pieces of information coming in the first half of 2012.

Over that same time period, micro-blogging site Twitter received 679 requests for user information from the United States government alone and complied with about 75 percent of said inquiries.

Many of the largest internet companies, such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo, already require search warrants before turning over user data. Leno's bill would codify those best practices into law and also serve as a legal protection for other, smaller tech firms that may be less inclined to take a stand for user privacy.

There's been some recent movement to create similar protections at the federal level--namely a bill introduced by Senators Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) earlier this month requiring warrants for email searches.

The sentiment that something needs to change when it comes to the government's warrantless reading of email has wide bipartisan backing, receiving support from both Grover Norquist's Americans For Tax Reform and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Even some high-ranking law enforcement officials insist that current law should be changed.

During testimony before the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee, Elana Tyrangiel, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy, argued that the laws regarding email have grown outdated and American internet users should be entitled to greater privacy protections.