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Editorial: Search warrant proposal will shield cellphones, PCs

The Detroit News

Information stored in your cellphone or personal computer is no different than the paper document stashed in your home file cabinets and desk drawers.

It's private, and it belongs to you.

Government should have a very sound reason to peek at that information, and should have to explain the reason to a judge.

The Michigan Legislature took an important step toward enshrining that principle in state law this week when it moved to put on the November ballot a proposal that would require a warrant for the searching and seizure of private electronic data. The vote to do so was unanimous.

Should voters approve the measure, it would codify what is largely the practice in Michigan.

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Most law enforcement agencies say they currently obtain warrants before tracking cellphone locations, peering into electronic bank records or engaging in other intrusions during a criminal investigation. 

The exception is cases of emergency when there is no time to request a warrant — an active kidnapping, for example.

It's vital that warrants be required for tapping into cell phones and computers.

But those situations are rare, and should remain so. The importance of the ballot proposal is that it sets in stone the concept that paper documents and electronic files must be treated the same in Michigan.

State law has not kept pace with technology. It is much easier today, and thus more tempting, to snoop on citizens without their knowledge and without a legal basis for doing so.

It's vital that warrants be required for tapping into cell phones and computers. It is also essential that those warrants place strict limits on what information can be examined, since once access is gained investigators have the ability to view far more information than they have a legal right to see. 

Michigan’s constitution forbids unreasonable search seizures of a person, house, papers or possessions without probable cause and a sworn warrant that describes the information.

The ballot amendment, if approved by voters, would expand those rules to include electronic data and communications.

Voters in Missouri and New Hampshire have already passed similar amendments by overwhelming majorities. As the ACLU has argued, it’s important to put these protections in the state constitution to more fully protect data privacy.

Michigan voters should do the same this fall.