Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Your government wants spying made easy

Across the pond, Great Britain is talking about extraordinary new spying power that would allow the government to monitor all communications without judicial approval. The British author George Orwell's nightmare could come true.

Here in Pennsylvania, no one is going quite that far. But don't give them any ideas. Using fear of crime (of course) and new technology as their wedges, government officials- specifically the commonwealth's prosecutors- are itching to open up the state Wiretap Act to make it easier to obtain our communications without dealing with those pesky courts.

For example, one proposal would allow the government to use illegal recordings made by civilians in its investigations. Go ahead and reread that. It is illegal for civilians to do it, but the government wants to be able to use what a civilian has illegally obtained. Translation: Your government is above the law.

Another proposal would allow a law enforcement official to intercept communications, without a warrant, and communicate back without identifying himself on a device he legally obtained, such as through an informant or through an arrest. Is that really your girlfriend on the other end of that text?

Mobile phone service providers archive your phone's location data. They know approximately where you've been for weeks. While one can understand the practical and benign reasons for collecting such data, e.g. tracking where to construct new towers, this data provides electronic footsteps of your every move. In their Wiretap Act proposal, government officials want to obtain that data with a standard less than probable cause. Their proposal has been changing and is something of a moving target, but essentially, they don't want to show a court that they have probable cause that a crime has occurred and that the phone was used in the commission of that crime. The ACLU of Pennsylvania believes that they must show probable cause and obtain a court order before getting that data, as mandated by both the federal and state constitutions.

Let's bottom line this: In their attempt to debase the Wiretap Act, these government officials want to gather more power for themselves, and they're using fear to convince lawmakers to go their way. 

No one should be fooled into believing that this is the end of their power grab either. At a hearing last month before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chief Deputy Attorney General Erik Olsen told the committee "we'll be back" for more revisions in the future. Big Brother is watching. And he wants to watch more.

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