Rhode Island Bill Would Limit Warrantless Electronic Data Collection, Hinder Federal Surveillance

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On Tuesday, a Rhode Island House committee held a hearing on two bills that would ban the warrantless collection of electronic data. Passage of these bills would not only increase privacy protections in Rhode Island, it would also hinder the federal surveillance state.

Rep. Blake Filippi (R-New Shoreham), along with four fellow Republicans, introduced House Bill 5893 (H5893) and House Bill 5894 (H5894) on March 22. Together, these bills would ban warrantless data collection from both electronic devices and from service providers.

Titled the Electronic Data Privacy Act, H5893 would prohibit any government entity from accessing the stored data of an electronic device without a search warrant based on probable cause. The legislation does include some exceptions to the warrant requirement. Police could access stored data on an electronic device with the consent of the owner or authorized user of the device, under judicially recognized exceptions to the warrant requirement, to answer a call for emergency service, and If the government entity, in good faith, believes that an emergency involving danger, death, or serious physical injury to a person requires immediate disclosure of communications relating to the emergency.

H5894 would require governmental entities, including law enforcement agencies, that are seeking the disclosure of electronic communications from a service provider to obtain a warrant or court-approved subpoena based on probable cause. Evidence obtained in violation of the law would not be admissible in civil or criminal court and could not be used as evidence for obtaining a warrant.

The House Justice Committee held a hearing on both H5893 and H5894. The committee did not take any action on the legislation.

IMPACT ON FEDERAL SURVEILLANCE PROGRAMS

The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE. In other words, stingrays create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

The feds encourage and fund surveillance programs at the state and local level across the U.S., thereby undoubtedly gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on warrantless surveillance, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. Passage of H5893 and H5894 would strike a major blow to the surveillance state and would be a win for privacy.

WHAT’S NEXT

The House Judiciary held both bills for further study after the hearing. Both bills will need to be brought up for a vote in the committee and passed by a majority before moving forward in the legislative process.

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