May 24, 2013

Senate passes privacy bill for cellphone users

- By TOM BELL

Staff Writer

AUGUSTA - The Senate voted 20-15 Thursday to pass a bill that would require police to get a warrant before they could obtain data from a cellphone provider about a customer's recent location history.

The bill is a priority for civil libertarians, who say it would protect people's privacy from government intrusion. Opponents, however, said the measure would make it harder for police to do their jobs.

L.D. 415, sponsored by Assistant Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, R-Augusta, was recommended not to pass by a legislative committee in April, amid concerns from police agencies and the Maine Attorney General's Office that it could dissuade law enforcement from using location information as an investigation tool.

Cellphone providers keep data that allow police to track a customer's location history for as long as 60 days. Police use that data to identify and rule out suspects, Attorney General Janet Mills said in an interview Thursday.

Mills said the bill's supporters are "naive" about police investigative tactics. She noted that the bill requires police to tell people within three days that they have obtained information about them from their cellphone provider.

Such a notification could jeopardize an investigation, Mills said.

"It requires you to tell the bad guys they are under investigation," she said. "This seriously impairs the ability of police to solve crimes."

But the bill's supporters, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said state and federal law hasn't caught up with cellphone technology.

The current federal law that addresses the issue was passed in 1986, when cellphones were the size of bricks and few people had them, said Sen. John Patrick, D- Rumford.

While efforts are under way in Congress to upgrade the law, Maine needs to act now to protect people's privacy, Patrick said during the floor debate. "I think it's wrong for police to spy on people without a warrant."

Katz, one of five Republicans who supported the measure, said the government needs a "damn good reason" to invade people's privacy. That's why the bill requires that police show a judge that they have probable cause to get a warrant, he said.

"Do you feel that you should have a reasonable expectation of privacy for where you are now, where you have been in the last two months and who you have been with?" he asked his Senate colleagues.

The amended bill would waive the warrant requirement in emergencies and delay the notice requirement for 180 days at a time when notice would have an "adverse result" on the investigation.

Tom Bell can be contacted at 274-0787 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com

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