Privacy SOS

H.R. 1981 is vacuum-style surveillance, legalized

As if SOPA and PIPA and ACTA weren't enough: now internet users are faced with the possibility that our internet service providers will be forced to gather and store our most private details, all so that the government can swoop in and get access to them, even without judicial oversight. And like many of the most privacy invasive government attempts to restrict our speech, gather information about us and spy on us, its sponsors are using "protecting children" as an excuse to ram it through.

H.R. 1981 is called the "Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act," but in fact the bill does more to harm children's safety than enable it. It is a huge boon to prosecutors and police who would gain access to our most intimate data, including your name, address, phone number, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and IP address. The bill would endanger children and all of us because it would mandate the collection of internet dossiers on every single internet user — including children. What a gift to pedophiles who work at internet companies, or to hackers who have an unhealthy interest in children. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bill comes from Lamar Smith's desk. He is the same man who introduced SOPA. Given the state of our subpoena statutes nationwide, this bill is a privacy disaster.

For example, in Massachusetts we have a bad law that allows prosecutors and police to submit "administrative subpoenas" to third party holders of our content, like Gmail, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, and even our internet service providers, like Comcast or Verizon. These administrative subpoenas are never seen by a judge; no evidence that you've committed a crime is necessary in order for them to gain access to much of your most intimate data. And guess what? "Protecting children" online was how this bill was sold to the Massachusetts legislature. But we have evidence that it is being used in at least one Occupy-related case in Boston, which obviously could not have less to do with protecting children from internet creeps. Administrative subpoenas are also frequently used during drug investigations

Many of the administrative subpoenas request that the recipients, for example Google, keep the subpoena secret from the targets, those among us whose data the government seeks. Some companies comply with the request for secrecy, and so you'll never know if you were a target. But at least one, Twitter, discloses the subpoenas to the targets whenever possible under law, which it has done in at least two Occupy-related cases over the past few months.

On the federal level, the FBI and DOJ deploy "national security letters," which amount to the same thing — except in the case of NSLs, the government can force the recipient of the subpoena to shut up about it. So if the FBI asked Comcast for your IP information using an NSL — again, with no judicial oversight — Comcast would be prevented from telling you by law. You might never know that it happened. Given the percentage of FBI investigations that lead to arrests, it's likely that the government is using its powers to conduct broad fishing expeditions.

If H.R. 1981 passes, the FBI will be able to legally and secretly track your internet activity in its entirety, and if it uses an NSL to do it, you might never know. Unfortunately the bill, which hasn't moved for months — presumably while Lamar Smith focused on SOPA — has passed through committee and is sailing on.

If H.R. 1981 or something like it passes, the government will be able to legally obtain access to our most intimate online data with something as routine as a judge-free, oversight-free, transparency-free subpoena like those described above. It would be a disaster for our internet privacy, and we've got to stop it.

Demand Progress has a portal where you can contact your lawmakers to tell them how you feel about this bill. Do it now and spread the word.

(If we can't stop it, we better hope that the Supreme Court agrees it with us and says this kind of wide-ranging, detailed, warrantless search doesn't stand the Fourth Amendment test.)

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.