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Law Enforcement Gets Quicker Access to Online Info

Pennsylvania House OK'd bill to fast track online investigations without judicial oversight

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG – A bill to give law enforcement faster access to online information has moved through the state House and is headed for the state Senate.

Civil liberties groups warn that the proposal contained in HB 90 will erode privacy rights and allow law enforcement to bypass judicial oversight when obtaining data about Internet users in the name of tracking down child predators on the web.

But advocates for the legislation, including many groups representing law enforcement agencies in the state, say the change will let them move more quickly to track down the 3,000 suspected child sex offenders in the state.

The bill would allow police to get a so-called “administrative subpoena” from a district attorney for certain investigations instead of having to wait to get a warrant from a judge.

It passed unanimously Monday afternoon in the state House.

Andy Hoover, executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said the proposal expands the power of law enforcement to get information without going through the proper, constitutional channels.

“If law enforcement wants to obtain personally identifying information about us that is not public, there should be judicial oversight,” Hoover said.

The ACLU has expressed concerns about whether those subpoenas would be used for other purposes without a judge watching the process.

“Those concerns are unfounded. They have no merit,” said state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, who sponsored the bill.

He said the information that can be obtained by the subpoena would include only basic things like the address of a certain Internet user — data that the courts have already determined is not private.

To get more sensitive information, a warrant would still be necessary.

But without judicial oversight, some worry that law enforcement could use those powers for more than just child sex offense investigations.

Saccone said there are safeguards against that, including the ability to have information thrown out in court if it is obtained illegally.

Late changes to the bill will require the state to make annual reports about the number of administrative subpoenas issued, the number of arrests those subpoenas led to and the number of times an administrative subpoena was issued but no arrest resulted.

State Rep. Madeline Dean, D-Montgomery, had been the sole vote against the bill in committee.  She said those changes and a provision that would sunset the law in 2017, unless the Legislature extends it, gave enough protection to earn her support.

“These reports will apply accountability with this additional grant of power,” Dean said.

She said she promised to oppose its extension if the bill failed in its purpose.

Hoover said the changes to the bill were helpful but did not “solve the underlying problems with the concept.”

In a letter voicing support for the bill, Attorney General Kathleen Kane pointed to the results of the 2012 Internet Crimes Against Children task force, which found nearly 30,000 IP addresses in Pennsylvania had downloaded files containing child pornography.

In the letter, Kane wrote that allowing administrative subpoenas would let law enforcement more quickly prosecute those cases.

“We can prosecute the offenders today,” she wrote. “We just need the legislature to give us the tools.”

Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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