RI Fights for Privacy: No Snooping Without a Warrant

Yesterday it appeared from the headlines of the Providence Journal that Rhode Island was entering a Twilight Zone of Republican authoritarianism — suddenly we learn that the Senate has already passed legislation that would allow the police to have full access to people’s phone and internet records including their credit card numbers without a warrant.

However, it appears that enough people — including the Governor and the ACLU — had the guts to pick up the phone and tell the government that they would appreciate a little respect for the Fourth Amendment. Consequently, this legislation is now being rewritten. However, the rewrite is apparently still going to allow police to get access to people’s internet records without a warrant.

Um, NOT ACCEPTABLE!!! Here is the list of all Rhode Island House of Representative email addresses and phone numbers. Time to pick up the phone and talk about privacy with your elected official, before your privacy no longer exists.

From the Projo:

PROVIDENCE — After a barrage of criticism from civil-liberities advocates, the state police yesterday agreed to changes in legislation before the General Assembly so it clearly would not give the police the right to obtain Rhode Islanders’ telephone records without a warrant.

But although the state police wanted to press on with a legislative hearing and possible committee vote today, Governor Carcieri intervened, saying he was concerned about civil liberties. By the end of the day, the House leadership put off consideration of the legislation for at least a week.

Carcieri said through a spokesman that he won’t support a bill that doesn’t address the concerns civil-liberties advocates have raised about the state police proposals.

One state police bill had passed the Senate and was scheduled, with a second similar bill, for hearings and perhaps a vote today in the House Judiciary Committee. But Larry Berman, the leadership spokesman, said, “They haven’t been able to work out the language yet.” The bills might be considered next week, Berman said.

It wasn’t clear yesterday what the legislation will say if it reappears. As written, the two bills from the state police would let any police chief obtain records, including local and long-distance telephone connection records, directly from communications companies, along with records of the time and length of Internet sessions.

The state police said that the original legislation wouldn’t include records of conventional phone calls, but lawyers familiar with that area of law flatly contradicted the assertion in an article The Journal published yesterday.

Those lawyers said that the state police bills would actually let any police chief obtain records of customers’ calls, including who was called, when and for how long.

Where the police now have to convince a judge that there is probable cause to believe a crime has been or is likely to be committed, the bills include no standards beyond a statement from any of the state’s police chiefs that the information was “necessary for an investigation.”

The critics said the bills contained no mechanism for keeping track of the demands, or administrative subpoenas, as the bills describe them, and no way for anyone to discover — ever — how many were issued or whose records were the target.

The state police say they need the information in order to discover who owns Internet accounts used to commit fraud and other crimes. They say that getting a warrant is too cumbersome and takes too long (several hours), which undermines their efforts to deal with increasing numbers of complaints about complicated Internet crimes.

Yesterday morning, Maj. Steven O’Donnell said the state police would agree to amending the bills to eliminate the references to telephone calls, but would continue to ask the legislature for permission to obtain customers’ Internet records without review by a judge.

Yesterday afternoon, however, Carcieri’s press secretary, Jeff Neal, said the governor’s concerns go beyond the apparent inclusion of telephone records along with Internet records, and include the lack of oversight, which the American Civil Liberties Union and others have also objected to. Neal said the governor communicated that yesterday to Col. Steven M. Pare, the state police commander.

The legislation had been on the brink of General Assembly approval. Presented as affecting only Internet records, the Senate bill needed only House approval. If the legislation is amended, both houses will have to approve the new language.

Civil-liberties advocates weren’t satisfied with the changes said to be under way yesterday, because they would still let any Rhode Island police chief get customers’ records from Internet service providers for the asking.

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the ACLU, said that without oversight of the police by an outside party, the result would still amount to “the same invasion of privacy” as the original bill, just covering less material.

The issue, meanwhile, was picked up by at least one political campaign.

Carl Sheeler, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, said the legislation “brings us to the brink of a Soviet-style police state.” He called the bills “a stain on our constitutional rights of privacy” and said they offer a major opportunity for abuse.

Go Carl! Interestingly, none of our other Senate candidates seem to be able to come up with a response to this outrage. It seems that some of them may have disappeared into cautious-politician-land and won’t be reachable again until after the election.

Hat tip to Allhatnocattle.net for the Bush Twilight Zone image.

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4 responses

  1. Time for Electoral Reform

    Not to appear as an apologist for the Republicans, but it’s misleading to label this as “Republican Authoritarianism”. Let’s not forget that the body this legislation is in front of is 80% Democrat, and the most outspoken elected official to criticize the bill has been our Republican governor.

    I’m seeing less and less difference between either of the major parties – political monopolies are never a good thing, even when your side is in power.

  2. Yes, which makes it all the more twilight-zonish.

    BTW, having spoken to my rep., Bob Jacquard, a former police officer, I feel reassured that at least he is not going to go along with this proposal. He also had some good news on the budget — looks like most of the proposed cuts have been restored. But we’ll leave it at that and let the official release of the budget later today speak for itself.

    As for the parties, it would help if they could have platforms that were somewhat consistent on certain issues. The breakdown in this is perhaps a signal of the need for larger changes, such as your name — “time for election reform” — suggests.

  3. In the meantime (because this govt. debate will not be resolved anytime soon) anyone who is THINKING about how to make their email private should just ACT to make it so. There are easy to use desktop solutions that protect the privacy of your email, keeping snoops, including your ISP, from having any access to your email contents. Some, like Taceo, are even free to download.
    http://www.essentialsecurity.com/products.htm

  4. Kiersten. Thanks. It is our freedoms and rights that make this country what she is. They’re worth fighting for. Carl

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