A dangerous bill in California would make it easy for the government to search the cell phones and online accounts of students and teachers. A.B. 165 rips away crucial protections for the more than 6-million Californians who work at and attend our public schools. Under the proposed law, anyone acting “for or on the behalf of” a public school — whether that’s the police or school officials — could search through student, teacher, and possibly even parent digital data without a court issuing a warrant or any other outside oversight.
A.B. 165 runs contrary to our values. California is proud to be a leader in protecting the privacy of our citizenry. Not only is the right to privacy baked into the California Constitution, but in 2015 our lawmakers also passed CalECPA — heralded as “the nation’s best digital privacy law” — with broad support from Republicans, Democrats, civil libertarians, tech companies, and members of the law enforcement community. This law strikes the right balance when it comes to protecting privacy and empowering government officials to do their jobs. It ensures that when someone in the government wants to search our digital devices or a police offer wants to search our online accounts, they go to a judge and get a warrant based on probable cause. And it also ensures that the government can act swiftly when life and limb are on the line by providing an exemption when there is an emergency.
Some may argue that schools should have different rules. But not only do Californians of all ages and backgrounds deserve and need digital privacy, A.B. 165 is a sledgehammer, not a scalpel. It destroys all the important CalECPA safeguards that protect Californians in the school context from wide-ranging government searches.
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If A.B. 165 is enacted, CalECPA protections would be stripped from students and teachers, meaning:
- Anyone acting “for or on the behalf of” a public school can conduct a search — that could potentially be anyone from lunch room attendants to on-campus police officers.
- School officials have no outside oversight when conducting searches and don’t have to report those searches to anyone.
- School officials aren’t required to notify anyone — the individual or parents or guardians — about a search
- There are no clear limits on what digital data can be searched — photos, appointments, social media accounts, email accounts, text messages, and browser history could all be up for grabs.
- There are no safeguards to protect how data is used or shared, including with federal agencies.
In effect, this means that a school official could search through the cell phones or online accounts of California students and teachers without any type of warrant or oversight and pass that data to federal agencies like US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or others.
As Pres. Donald Trump is announcing policies that open the door to rounding up and deporting millions of immigrants in the United States and stripping away the rights of transgender students, A.B. 165 creates a dangerous loophole in California’s privacy safeguards.
California students use cell phones to access and communicate deeply sensitive information, like learning about local political events, investigating reproductive health, discussing the immigration status of a family member, or exploring their own gender identity. We can show our students that their dignity and privacy matters by safeguarding their rights to read and communicate without the specter of unfettered government access.
Unfortunately, backers of A.B. 165 are the same legislators who fought the passage of CalECPA two years ago. This bill may be aimed at California public schools, but make no mistake: the battle won’t stop here. If these legislators are able to destroy safeguards for our schools, they’ll turn to other communities and try to strip away these legal protections for other Californians. We need to hold the line.
A.B. 165 is currently in the privacy subcommittee of the California Assembly. That means that right now is a very important time to make sure all our California legislators hear us. Please speak out now against A.B. 165.
And if you are a California student or teacher who has witnessed the search of a digital device or online account on school property, please report it using our form.
Not in California? You can still make a difference. Please reach out to your friends in California and ask them to speak out, and please share this blog post on social media.
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