PORTLAND, Ore. – Angry over revelations of National Security Agency surveillance and frustrated with what they consider outdated digital privacy laws, state lawmakers are proposing bills to curtail the powers of law enforcement to monitor and track citizens.
Their efforts in at least 14 states are a direct message to the federal government: If you don’t take action to strengthen privacy, we will.
“We need to stand up and protect our liberty,” said Republican Missouri state Sen. Rob Schaaf, author of a digital privacy bill.
Police groups, however, say the moves will in some cases hinder efforts to deter or solve crimes. “It would cripple law enforcement’s ability to do investigations,” said Bart Johnson, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Proponents say the measures will overhaul the definition of digital privacy and help increase oversight of specific surveillance tools that law enforcement agencies have been using in the states that critics say mirrors federal surveillance technology.
The bills include a Colorado proposal that would limit the retention of images from license plate readers, an Oregon bill that would require “urgent circumstances” to obtain cellphone location data and a Delaware plan that increases privacy for text messages.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have joined in proposing the measures, reflecting the unusual mix of political partnerships that have arisen since the NSA revelations that began in May. Establishment leadership has generally favored the programs, while conservative limited government advocates have opposed them.
Supporters say the measures are needed because technology has grown to the point that police can digitally track someone’s every move.
Devices such as license plate readers and cellphone trackers “can tell whether you stayed in a motel that specializes in hourly rates, or you stopped at tavern that has nude dancers,” said David Fidanque, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.
“It’s one thing to know you haven’t violated the law, but it’s another thing to know you haven’t had every one of your moves tracked,” he said.
Proposals focused specifically on police surveillance are new.
Schaaf’s proposal for a legislatively mandated ballot measure in Missouri would add electronic data to a list of property protected from unreasonable search and seizure. If it passes, it would go before voters in November.
“The people in Missouri, if they get the chance to approve it, will send a message that other states can, and must, do the same thing,” Schaaf said. “We can’t wait on Congress.”
In Indiana, legislators have put forward a bill that would ban the warrantless use of a portable device that can track cellphone movement, as well as incoming and outgoing calls and text messages. Indiana lawmakers also want to use warrants to limit the use of tracking devices and cameras.
Even some opponents concede that changes to surveillance and data privacy laws are likely, with several of them in places such as Wisconsin, Texas and Montana already passed or awaiting governors’ signatures.
Change is “a reality that is coming to law enforcement,” said Georgia Bureau of Investigation director Vernon Keenan. “We can either try to stand up and fight it off, which is not possible, or embrace what is reasonable.”