Smartphones in 2018 are necessary, ubiquitous devices that function simultaneously as GPS location trackers, cameras that follow us into the bathroom, private communication-logging devices, business computers, and, let’s be honest, porn-streaming screens. And yet, there are still bizarrely few laws banning cops and other law-enforcement members from swiping highly personal phone data without your consent or just cause.
Last Friday, Florida State Senator Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, filed a bill that would, if enacted, place a series of legal barriers between cops and your digital footprint. Brandes’s bill would force cops to get warrants before monitoring your cell-phone’s location data or private communications. It would also force officers to get a judge to sign off before cops eavesdrop on your microphone-based virtual-home assistants, such as an Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home.
“The Legislature recognizes that the use of portable electronic communication devices is growing at a rapidly increasing rate,” the bill reads. “These devices can store, and encourage the storing of, an almost limitless amount of personal and private information. Often linked to the Internet, these devices are commonly used to access personal and business information and databases in computers and servers that can be located anywhere in the world.” (Florida Politics first reported on the new bill last week.)
Brandes filed a similar bill last year that failed. Florida cops currently don’t need a warrant to search or track your phone. This is odd, since it’s long been illegal under Florida law to record a private conversation without the consent of all parties involved.
Brandes is a Republican with a definite Libertarian streak — while he supports Governor-elect Ron Desantis, the human equivalent of a flag-shaped Jell-O mold made by a racist grandmother, Brandes has also won honors from the Florida American Civil Liberties Union for consistently filing bills limiting local cops’ ability to search people without proper justification. None of this excuses Brandes’s very bad opinions about guns, the Florida public-school system, “border security, or the unbearable “Libertarian Christmas” video he posted on December 25, but we digress:
Scores of articles have been written regarding police use of devices called “Stingrays,” which cops can use to track the physical location of your cell phone and, in many cases, intercept your calls or communications. The technology was first developed for U.S. military use in war zones. The devices were then sold to cops to use on American citizens. New Times in 2012 confirmed that Miami-Dade County Police were using Stingray devices — at this point, it’s safe to assume that most large and medium-sized PDs have the technology. In 2009, the Broward Sheriff’s Office charged a drifter with murder after using a Stingray to trace his cell-phone. BSO did not have a warrant.
The concept of cell-phone-tracking remains controversial. Many rights-groups, such as the ACLU, argue that it’s usually unconstitutional for cops to search your private data without a warrant or your permission. But cops do it anyway and often wind up getting sued in the process. (The U.S. Supreme Court has in some cases held that cops need a warrant before tracking your phone.) Brandes’s bill would basically put that debate to rest in Florida, and codify your right to control your cell data. The proposal, which will likely be heard during trhe legislative session that starts March 5, would force cops to explain why they planned to surveil someone and for how long. After 45 days, surveillance would be banned and cops would be forced to notify those who have been tracked.
“The user of a portable electronic communication device has a reasonable and justifiable expectation of privacy in the information that these devices contain,” the bill reads.