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.