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Attorney Explains How Privacy Law Could Interact With N.S.A.

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BOZEMAN -

Over the summer, electronic privacy became a hot issue when National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden leaked documents exposing government collection of citizens cell phone data.

Montana was the first state to prohibit the government from collecting location data from your mobile device.

But since state lawmakers can only make state laws, and the U.S. Constitution has the supremacy clause, local lawyer Lindsey Beck isn't sure how this law will interact with federal agencies like the N.S.A.

"One thing that's for sure is Montana State local law enforcement agencies won't be able to use your cell phone to find out the location where you are," said Beck.

She said it could affect how state and federal agencies interact with each other.

"State law enforcement agencies might have a valid argument to say that we're not going to cooperate with these federal agencies, that they want Montana agents help using this kind of tracking information," said Beck. 

While Montana's current law only limits the government, House Bill 603's author, Daniel Zolnikov, originally wanted the law to apply to more than just the government.

"We wanted to basically obtain consent for the collection of your personal information," said Zolnikov. "And that's online, through departments, organizations, companies."

Many people already consent for companies like Google to track their location without even realizing it.

In September, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt addressed the issue to reporters at the Economic Job Summit in Butte, saying Google only collects information if you say it is OK.

"We view for the location services, we give "opt in" and with "opt in" we think that's fine," said Schmidt.

Many users opt in to Google collecting your location data when you first download a Google app on your smart phone or tablet.

But if there an emergency, Google can track you location, even if you don't give them permission.

"The phone for example, for e- 911 services have to know where you are, unless you give us permission, we forget that information very quickly," Schmidt said.

911 is one of the exceptions to the Montana law.

Other exceptions include if you report it stolen, if you say the government can track your phone, or if there is an immediate life threatening situation.

Texas also passed a similar law earlier this year.

There, state and local governments must provide a search warrant before collecting people's emails.

Right now Senator Jon Tester is co-sponsoring a bill called the U.S.A. Freedom Act that will pull back the N.S.A., limiting them to only spy on specific terrorist suspects.

Congressman Steve Daines is sponsoring a house version of a similar bill.

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