Pa. Law Enforcement Wants Easier Access to Your Internet Activities

Should law enforcement have easier access to Pennsylvanians’ Internet records?

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – Law enforcement officials say they should not have to go to a judge before seeking personal data about Internet users in Pennsylvania.

The state House is set to vote early next week on a bill that would allow law enforcement to obtain permission from a district attorney or attorney general – instead of requiring a warrant from a judge – to force internet service providers to turn over potentially sensitive personal data about what Pennsylvanians are doing online.

Advocates for the change say law enforcement should be given easier access to the data in order to track down and arrest predators targeting children on the Internet, but there are red flags being raised by civil liberties advocates.

Andy Hoover, legislative director for the Pennsylvania ACLU, said the bill breaks down barriers between the government and our personal information – and is a recipe for law enforcement authority abuse by taking judges out of the picture.

“A judge is a neutral, third-party observer, and that role is essential in protecting our rights,” Hoover said. “This bill removes the judge from the process, and that’s never a good thing.”

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, would allow police departments to obtain a legal document called an administrative subpoena from district attorneys to compel internet service providers to turn over information about online users.

Such subpoenas are already used in a wide variety of cases, and federal law allows them to be used to obtain information from internet service providers, but Pennsylvania law requires a warrant from a judge unless ISPs turn over information willingly.

The law enforcement crowd is lining up in support of the bill, starting at the very top.

In a letter voicing support for the bill, Attorney General Kathleen Kane pointed to the results of the 2012 Internet Crimes Against Children task force, which found nearly 30,000 IP addresses in Pennsylvania had downloaded files containing child pornography.

In the letter, Kane wrote that allowing administrative subpoenas would let law enforcement more quickly prosecute those cases.

“We can prosecute the offenders today,” she wrote. “We just need the legislature to give us the tools.”

Shawn Wagner, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said in a similar letter that the electronic information obtained by internet service providers is vital to locating the sources of crimes like the possession of child pornography.

Requiring a court order in each case makes it impossible to slow those types of crimes, he wrote, though he also acknowledged that many internet service providers are “extremely responsive” to law enforcements’ informal requests for information as part of an investigation.

An important factor is that administrative subpoenas are more open-ended than search warrants.

While a warrant gives law enforcement the right to search a particular person or location, a subpoena can be enforced in other jurisdictions – even beyond Pennsylvania’s borders.

Law enforcement groups like the District Attorneys Association see that as a good thing. Hoover says it’s a dangerous expansion of police power that violates the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches.

Regardless of concerns, the bill seems poised to move quickly through the legislature. It moved out of the House Judiciary Committee this week with nearly unanimous support, and is scheduled to go before the full House on Monday.

State Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, cast the only dissenting vote in the committee. She said she is interested in appropriate law enforcement measures to go after online predators, but decided to vote “no” because of lingering questions about the bill.

“I worry anytime we take away court review,” Dean said. “Let’s make sure we craft these things carefully and do not bypass court review except in special circumstances.”

Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

David Holewinski March 18, 2013 at 02:49 PM
Who in the heck thought up this plan? The checks and balances were put in place to protect the citizens. We don't need to circumvent our constitution and the rights that it holds for us. Our government is trying to do away with the constitution every chance they get. FOLLOW THE RULES
P2YA March 18, 2013 at 04:33 PM
Few would disagree with or speak out against nabbing child predators, and how clever it is for those advocating for this legislation to use THAT as a justification. Nevertheless, it's a slippery slope, and as some have already stated a vast government overreach into the privacy of citizens. What's next--the state randomly and discreetly monitoring your online purchases (for sales tax purposes) and/or your online banking records? A piece of legislation that essentially grants broad-based powers in covertly monitoring communications is a red flag. Something more specific dealing strictly with child predator investigations might be okay, but wait...that already exists. Law enforcement needs to get a court order, which can be a fairly quick procedure when there's evidence to support the warrant. No, this legislation is about much broader powers to the state cloaked as something innocuous that most people would agree with. Legislators should not be hoodwinked into being politically correct (supporting the tracking down of child predators) and in the process throw constitutionally-protected civil liberties out the window.
Jeff Lugar March 19, 2013 at 11:39 AM
Unless you're doing something illegal or unseemly online, there's really nothing to be fearful of here.
Don Talenti March 19, 2013 at 11:53 PM
That is a remarkably naive statement. You SHOULD fear loss of privacy and basic protection from unrestrained police power. Wow. I cannot believe you said that. You assume the police would use their new search power only for legitimate reasons. Common sense, human nature, and plenty of experience dictate otherwise.You also assume that someone has to fear something in order to have privacy. I have curtains in my house. Nothing "illegal or unseemly" is going on, yet it is my choice if the curtains are closed, and NO BUSINESS of the police what is going on behind them - unless they can show enough cause to get a warrant. In America, we are presumed innocent. It is not up TO ME to give up privacy in order to prove innocence. I should not be presumed to be up to something nefarious because I don't want my private activity scrutinized at the whim of a public servant. Tell me, would you think it OK for a police officer to approach you in the street, for WHATEVER reason he may decide, and root through your wallet and briefcase, reading everything, and documenting it, THEN deciding if a crime occurred?
LA March 20, 2013 at 12:38 AM
@Don Talenti ~ Amen! What's the saying about "absolute power corrupts absolutely"?


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