By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
When talk around here turns toward privacy in our use of electronic technologies and everyday activities, my mind goes straight to the Jason Bourne movie franchise and its characters’ references to popping on and off “the grid.” Although the Bourne series is fiction, it’s not a stretch to think of today’s electronic technologies as “the grid,” even for those of us who aren’t trained CIA assassins. And we shouldn’t have to escape to a beachside hut in India to escape the government’s probing eyes.
At the end of June, the ACLU released an interactive map that illustrates how well states are keeping up with protecting the people’s privacy in an age of evolving technologies. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania isn’t.
The ACLU examined state law on four key topics- government access to mobile location data, electronic communication data, and license plate reader data, and government use of drones. Utah, Tennessee, and Maine protect their residents’ privacy in at least three of those areas. Seven more states protect privacy in at least two of those issue areas. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has no protections in state law on any of these topics.
Here in the commonwealth, we’ve been too busy fighting off new legislative initiatives for the government to expand its collection of your personal data to think much about making the law better. In the 2013-14 session, we’ve dealt with a bill to create a government-run database of prescription medication records and another bill to collect DNA from people who have been merely arrested but not convicted of a crime.
The former has been tied up in part due to privacy concerns- among Democrats and Republicans- over the bill’s loose standard for prosecutors to access the database. The latter should be dead after Public Source published findings last month that 30,000 arrestees in Pennsylvania in 2013 were never fingerprinted, leading one to reasonably wonder how police are going to add DNA collection to their duties.
And alarm bells went off throughout the capitol (figuratively) in April when the state Supreme Court ruled that police officers no longer need a search warrant issued by a court to search a stopped vehicle. While the court maintained the constitutionally-sound “probable cause” standard, it removed the neutral third party- the judge- to determine that the officer actually reached the standard. That will force Pennsylvanians who are unfairly searched to fight it after the fact. Numerous state legislators and staff approached me after that ruling to say, in so many words, “WTF?”
All is not lost, though. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has teamed up with legislators from both parties to stop or at least neutralize awful legislation that would undermine privacy over the last two legislative sessions. The ground is fertile to push back with initiatives that enhance privacy in Pennsylvania and that keep the government from expanding its reach into our business.
Unless you’ve found a way to live electronic-free (and you’re reading this blog so I assume you haven’t), you’re on the grid. You shouldn’t have to choose between modern conveniences and your right to be free from government snooping. State lawmakers need to hear that message, too.
Andy Hoover is the legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. That means he lobbies, even though his colleagues often ask him, “How can you stand it?” He goes onto the grid on Twitter, @freedomsfriend.