Limited and Open Government

Montana Brings Privacy Into the 21st Century

Nearly every American owns a cellphone that can track their movements and store private information, which creates increased opportunities for government surveillance and invasion of that privacy. Responding to this concern, the Montana State Legislature recently passed House Bill 479, which now heads to Governor Greg Gianforte for his signature, and Senate Bill 203 which goes to the voters for approval.

Since 2013, data privacy has been a hot topic in Montana. Former State Representative Daniel Zolnikov introduced, and passed, 2013’s House Bill 603 and 2017’s House Bill 148 while Representative Matt Rosendale introduced, and passed, 2013’s Senate Bill 196. House Bill 603 — a first of its kind — implemented guardrails on the government’s ability to acquire location data from an individual’s electronic devices while Senate Bill 196 prohibits warrantless drone surveillance. On the other hand, House Bill 148 protects online communications — such as text messages and emails — from warrantless searches by law enforcement. 

And during Montana’s 2021 legislative session, Representative Katie Sullivan sponsored House Bill 479 and Senator Kenneth Bogner sponsored Senate Bill 203.

Similar to Utah’s 2019 legislation, Representative Sullivan’s bill builds on Representative Zolnikov’s 2017 bill to protect all online data stored with third parties, not just communications, from warrantless searches and surveillance by law enforcement. 

Following the lead of Missouri’s 2014 constitutional amendment and Michigan’s 2020 constitutional amendment, Senator Kenneth Bogner’s bill seeks to add an amendment to Montana’s Constitution to require a search warrant before law enforcement can access an individual’s electronic data and communications. Now that Senate Bill 203 cleared the state legislature, it is up to the voters to approve it. If Montanans approve the measure, Montana will be the first state with explicit digital privacy protections in both their state constitution and state code. 

Montana’s Frontier Institute proved instrumental in ushering both of these bills through their state legislature. As a result of Frontier’s hard work, Montana joins a handful of other states extending privacy protections to digital data and communications. 

We’d also like to thank Representative Katie Sullivan for sponsoring House Bill 479, Governor Greg Gianforte for supporting Representative Sullivan’s bill, and Senator Kenneth Bogner for delivering privacy protections to Montanans’ ballots.

As daily life becomes increasingly digital, it’s crucial for states to explicitly protect the digital data and communications of its residents from warrantless searches. 

Digital privacy is an issue Libertas Institute has researched extensively, and we stand ready to help your state pursue this opportunity as we have with Montana. For groups or legislators in other states looking to work on the issue, we’d love to help