Digital Fourth’s first and longest-running campaign was against a bill that Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney-general and now gubernatorial candidate, described as her “top legislative priority” for the 2013-14 legislative session. On June 30, we succeeded: The Judiciary Committee killed S. 654, the “Act Updating the Wire Interception Law”.
When it was proposed, this bill could hardly have had more heavyweight support. The then-Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Katherine Clark, co-sponsored it, as did the House Chair. The AG, the DAs, and the police were all behind it. So what happened?
The bill sought to loosen Massachusetts’ strict limits on the ability of state agencies to conduct electronic wiretaps. They would still have had to get warrants to conduct wiretaps, but they would have been able to conduct wiretaps while investigating a far greater array of crimes. Right now, electronic wiretaps are allowed only in connection with “organized crime”, and while investigating a defined set of major felonies such as arson and murder. The new bill would have allowed wiretaps for minor nonviolent crimes like marijuana possession near a school, misstatements on a firearms license application, or ethics violations.
Our objection to the wiretapping bill wasn’t a Constitutional one. It was that we felt electronic surveillance to be an extraordinary and dangerous instrument of government power, not a routine part of law enforcement. That’s exactly how the current wiretapping laws view the matter, but Martha Coakley and the state DAs disagree. Over the years, they have regularly introduced bills to “update” the wiretapping law, and this was merely the latest and in some respect broadest of many attempts.
So we launched a petition campaign, and worked with our allies at the ACLU of Massachusetts, BORDC, EFF and Demand Progress, to gather over 4,000 signatures of Massachusetts residents opposed to the bill – an extraordinary result for a state bill. And it seems that the Judiciary Committee noticed. The state legislators we met with generally felt that there was some case for updates to the wiretapping bill, but that this particular bill went far too far in allowing minor criminal investigations to use electronic wiretaps.
So it looks like, for this session at least, there will be no broad expansion of the state’s wiretapping power. Will we have to block another effort next session? Probably. We’ll be contacting the AG campaigns to get them to commit to not try this kind of thing again. But there’s every chance, under a Coakley administration (if that were to happen), that we will see this bill rear its head again. And if it does, we will be there together to whack it back down again.
This shows that concerted, well-organized popular pressure, even with essentially no money behind it, still has the ability to derail the priorities of supporters of the surveillance state. This is why it is vital to work for surveillance reform now – not in five or ten years, but now – before it becomes so thoroughly entrenched at every level of government that it can never be removed, or even resisted.
See Digital Fourth’s prior coverage: