Noxious Creeping: Amending the PA Wiretap Act (Part I)
“(T)he erosion of freedom rarely comes as an all-out frontal assault but rather as a gradual, noxious creeping, cloaked in secrecy, and glossed over by reassurances of greater security.” – Senator Robert Byrd
A group of prosecutors in Pennsylvania is seeking a major expansion of government surveillance power. They are advocating for House Bill 2400, and we expect its supporters to try to fast-track the bill through the legislature before it can get a thorough review from lawmakers and the public. The bill would make about a dozen changes to current law, many of which seriously undermine Pennsylvanians’ privacy. We’re discussing the worst of them in a series of posts. In this post, I discuss the proposal to allow law enforcement to secretly intercept and send text messages using cell phones they obtain from civilians.
Part 1: Who is that text message really from?
One of the changes they want would overturn the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision in Pennsylvania v. Cruttenden. The case involved an informant who turned his cell phone over to police when he was caught with drugs in his car. The police intercepted text messages from the informant’s alleged supplier and sent replies without revealing their identities. The supplier, thinking he was still talking to the informant, set up a meeting. But when he got there, instead of meeting the informant he was arrested and charged with criminal attempt, conspiracy, and other offenses. On appeal, the Superior Court held that police violated the Wiretap Act when they failed to get a court order for using the cell phone. If police want to take a person’s cell phone, intercept text messages, and send text messages from the phone while pretending to be the intended recipient, they must get a court to say okay.
Prosecutors want to pass a law to overturn the case. They want to allow law enforcement to receive and send text messages on any phone that they “lawfully obtain.” They want law enforcement to be able to do this without any court oversight and without revealing their identities to the people they are communicating with.
Even if you think police should be allowed to use a phone that an informant voluntarily hands over for police to use, the proposed bill would go much farther. Police could intercept and send messages on any phone they “legally obtain.” This appears to allow police to seize the phones of people they arrest, and then use those phones to try to trick others into sending incriminating messages. It even seems to create an incentive for law enforcement to arrest people in order to seize and use their phones.
Prosecutors say that the court order requirement gets in the way of law enforcement. That’s true. “Getting in the way of law enforcement” is also the purpose of the Fourth Amendment and much of the Wiretap Act. It would be convenient for law enforcement to be able to read any text message anyone sends. But we don’t want to live in a society where we are never sure if our private text messages will end up in a police dossier or if text messages we receive come from our friends or from the government.
Nathan Vogel, Frankel Legislative Fellow, ACLU of PA