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Some folks might be ashamed to use the bodies of dead kids as cover for a power grab. That clearly doesn’t include Massachusetts Attorney-General Martha Coakley, last seen managing to lose a Senate race to Scott Brown in 2010 in a deep blue state.

See, Coakley, along with with state senator Gene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea) and state rep John Keenan (D-Salem), have introduced a new bill, An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law, to massively expand law enforcement’s power to conduct electronic wiretaps of our communications. In a press conference, she cited the Newtown shootings, and a 2011 case where a conviction was overturned because current law would not authorize an electronic wiretap. She and her fellow electeds are arguing that "criminals have the upper hand" here in Massachusetts.

Before I present a detailed analysis of the bill itself, let's get a few things straight.

(a) Weaker laws on electronic wiretapping wouldn't have done a thing to stop the Newtown shootings - Adam Lanza didn't even have a Facebook page. For Coakley to use that tragedy as a way to push this is despicable. The AG's office introduces a bill like this every two-year session, and simply hangs the latest crime du jour on it to justify it. Last time around it was financial crime, and she tried, and failed, to make things like investigations of kiting checks eligible for electronic wiretapping warrants. This time it's guns. But the basic aim remains the same: to let law enforcement wiretap whomever it likes, with very few if any legal constraints.

(b) In the 2011 case, the murderer was later convicted anyway. Coakley appears not to be able to think up a single case where the current wiretapping laws have actually prevented her from catching criminals.

(c) Crime is at a 45-year low in Massachusetts. Since 2003, it's been steadily below 3 crimes per 100 residents per year, down from a peak of more than 6 in the 1970s. So there's no evidence that "criminals have the upper hand".

Let’s not kid ourselves what this is about. This is not about reducing crime. They can’t think of a single case where there’s a criminal walking free today because electronic wiretapping is only allowed under narrow circumstances here in Massachusetts. This is about power. The AG’s office knows that it’s technologically possible for them to monitor more of our electronic communications, and it bugs them that it’s illegal to do, whether or not that monitoring will result in more convictions. So, they’re ginning up false fears of a crime wave, calling this an “update”, and trying to get the people of Massachusetts to agree to join them in the brave new mass-monitored world – which they, not us, would control.

Follow me below the fold to find out what's in the bill itself!

Here’s an advance hint: What do simple marijuana possession, annoying telephone calls, burglary, neglecting to depart a public assembly on the orders of police, failing to display the correct posters relating to the illegality of firearms and explosives in your school, and the sale of arrowheads used for hunting, have in common?

If you guessed “It isn’t legal in Massachusetts right now to take out an electronic wiretapping warrant for offenses this minor, but it would be under this bill”, then congratulations, you win the Grand Prize!

As far as I can see, there are three main points of this legislation:

1) To remove the requirement that an electronic wiretapping warrant be connected with organized crime, or indeed with serious crimes more generally.

2) To legalize mass interception of communications at telecommunications switching stations, rather than through individual wiretaps on individual phone numbers.

3) To double the length of an authorized wiretap, from 15 to 30 days.

A long-standing frustration of law enforcement in Massachusetts has been that the electronic wiretapping statute was drafted in response to the problem of organized crime specifically, rather than being devised to cover a certain set of the most serious crimes. So, in order to take out an electronic wiretapping warrant, law enforcement has first had to demonstrate that there is an ongoing investigation connected to organized crime, of which the wiretap would be a part. It's not unusual for the list of offenses to only include offenses characteristic of organized crime; it is unusual to require a prior demonstration that the specific offense under investigation is connected to organized crime. However, neither the AG nor the bill’s sponsors have yet been able to point to any case where a criminal was not brought to justice because of the lack of connection of his crime to organized crime, suggesting that this limitation on police activity has little actual effect on convictions.

Going beyond this, the bill before us implements a much broader list of offenses for which electronic wiretapping with a warrant is legal than is currently the case. We’re no longer talking about arson, rape, murder and witness intimidation in connection with organized crime. We’re talking about a wide array of offenses, down to the very minor ones listed above. Coakley proposes expanding the designated offenses to cover every possible firearms and drug offense, down to simple marijuana possession, and also every kind of illegal threat, harassment and hazing, or conspiracy to commit such crimes. This could be read as a response not only to the Newtown massacre and associated calls for gun control, but also to the sad cases of cyberbullying that Massachusetts has seen in its schools.

The most worrying new element in this bill is the conscious inclusion of language allowing wiretaps to be placed at phone companies’ switching stations. Let me show you what I mean.

Old language:

1. The term “wire communication” means any transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception
New language:
1. The term “wire communication” means any transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception, including the use of such connection in a switching station, furnished or operated by any person engaged in providing or operating such facilities for the transmission of such communications and shall include: any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system, but shall not include: (i) any communication made through a tone-only paging device; (ii) any communication from a tracking device, defined as an electronic or mechanical device which permits the tracking of the movement of a person or object; or (iii) electronic funds transfer information stored by a financial institution in a communications system used for the electronic storage and transfer of funds.
Surveillance activists like myself are well aware that one of the biggest surveillance-related cases of recent years has involved the activities uncovered by whistleblower Mark Klein, where the NSA installed an electronic intercept for all phone traffic at an AT&T switching station in San Francisco (Jewel v. NSA). The conscious inclusion of such language by Coakley here suggests that law enforcement in Massachusetts would like to be able to start doing such things under color of law. A ruling is still pending on that case, but it is hard to square such activities with the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that:
no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
This “particularity” requirement is a settled part of Fourth Amendment law, and there is no question that in trying to legalize this practice, Coakley is opening the AG’s office to being sued on constitutional grounds, which could cost the Commonwealth a bundle.

The provision to double the length of an authorized wiretap is unsurprising. I have obtained through public records requests a complete list of the electronic wiretaps taken out in Massachusetts by the AG’s office and DAs’ offices during 2011 (information on 2012 is being collected). Of the total of 16 warrants issued, 9 had to be renewed, though none appear to have had to have been renewed twice. Presumably this fact is motivating the proposal to extend the date. However, neither the AG’s office nor the DAs’ offices report any denials of renewal applications. This implies that a renewal takes effort on the part of the prosecutor, but that there is no plausible doubt that an application to renew, once received, will be denied. Therefore, we are once again out of the zone of “reducing the ability of prosecutors to get convictions” and back into the zone of “increasing administrative convenience for prosecutors”.

Thankfully, relative to prior years, the AG appears so far to have dropped her previous suggestion to expand the list of “designated offenses” to an array of financial crimes, down to kiting checks and violating codes of ethics. For the moment, there’s also no sign of her previous unconstitutional proposal to substitute after-the-fact “certificates” for proper warrants signed before the fact by a judge. However, the bill still has serious defects as presented.

At my new campaign group, the Campaign for Digital Fourth Amendment Rights, we believe that if electronic wiretapping warrants are to be legal, they should be restricted to very serious crimes. While philosophically the organized crime requirement seems outdated, in practice it doesn’t seem to affect convictions. What it does do is to impose a high bar on launching an electronic wiretapping investigation, and that high bar is useful in itself. We feel that it would be a waste of police resources to mount electronic wiretaps of peaceful activists, conduct mass surveillance of traffic at phone switching stations, or turn every insulting comment on a schoolkid’s Facebook page into a criminal matter, all of which this bill would allow. Any surveillance that moves away from a particularized target towards generalized suspicion, or that chills people’s freedom of speech, is constitutionally suspect. The AG should accept, just as the federal government should accept, that there are activities that they and we may not like, that cannot realistically be suppressed by the government without violating the Constitution. Legislators thinking of cosponsoring this legislation should likewise be aware of the major problems it presents.

Why not let them know how you feel?

To contact the Attorney General’s office, try here.
To contact State Senator Eugene O’Flaherty, try here.
To contact State Representative John Keenan, try here.

Poll

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