House Bill 2400 proposes to diminish Pa.'s wiretapping protections

Our wired world has brought us an alphabet soup of bills seeking to curtail privacy and  civil rights online: SOPA, PIPA, CISPA. (Read our April 19 editorial about CISPA, "Going cyber commando," at pontealdia.com.) 

Privacy rights are also at the heart of more battles being waged over the content of our e-mails, cell phone calls and other electronic communications — one locally, the other federally.

Pennsylvania House Bill 2400, referred to the Judiciary Committee of the House May 21, would change legislation, doing away with the requirement that all parties consent to recording a conversation when there is an expectation of privacy. 

The changes would also allow the government to intercept communications without a warrant. Introduced by Dauphin County Republican Ron Marisco, the bill has 50 sponsors, including  Republican John Taylor of Philadelphia.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania has characterized the proposed changes as "significantly undermining" Pennsylvanians' right to privacy.

"(HB 2400) even opens the door to a form of surveillance without a warrant ... by allowing the government to intercept incoming messages and send outgoing messages on devices it has seized without ever telling a court what it is doing," the organization states. 

"There must be clear boundaries between the government and the people. Some of the proposed changes to the Wiretap Act break down those boundaries," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania in a release issued in March, before the bill had been referred to committee. 

Furthermore, the bill, like many of the commonwealth's proposed anti-immigrant bills, is made more worrisome by the vague "reasonable suspicion" phrasing — in this case pertaining to the right of individuals to "intercept the contents of any wire, electronic or oral communication" of another state resident solely on that basis.

The image this conjures is distressingly Orwellian, with neighbors turning on neighbors who are deemed suspicious because of racial or ethnic stereotype, or because they "don't fit in."

 At the federal level, wiretapping may become part of the national discourse. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether plaintiffs have a right to challenge the constitutionality of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which authorizes the National Security Agency to conduct surveillance of Americans' international e-mails and phone calls.

A number of human rights groups — including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — filed suit because they contend that FISA"s warrantless wiretapping program, and the 2008 expansions giving the NSA power to monitor Americans' international phone calls and e-mails, prevent them from their human rights work.

The Justice Department claims that the organizations should not be able to sue without first showing they have been monitored under FISA – but at the same time says the government should not have to disclose whether they have.

It will come as no surprise to some of our readers —émigrés from Latin American countries that at one time restricted access to information or routinely engaged in warrantless actions — that governments and legislatures quietly pass laws depriving citizens of their rights. It should come as no surprise to the rest of our readers either, after all, a U.S. president was forced to resign over wiretap surveillence not so very long ago. 

The technologies change, but our responsibility, as citizens and journalists, to decry potential breaches of power do not. 

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