Privacy SOS

Massive electronic wiretap proposal pushed by Massachusetts officials

Uh oh. The powers that be in Massachusetts want prosecutors and police to have much more freedom to intercept our phone calls and electronic communications. And they are bringing out the big guns to push their demands — literally. The nation's rampant gun violence crisis, they say, requires new state powers.

The Boston Globe’s Metrodesk describes the government’s plans:

The state’s nearly four-decades-old wiretapping law needs to be updated in order to give police and prosecutors more muscle to clamp down on gun violence, a group of legislators, law enforcement officials, and mayors said today.

They said they were pushing for “critical and long-overdue” changes in a bill filed today in the Legislature. The bill would expand the scope of electronic surveillance, which is currently limited to organized crime cases, to cases involving drugs and guns, child pornography, human trafficking, and money laundering.

The bill would also modernize the definition of “wire communication” in the law to include wireless communication on cellphones, Attorney General Martha Coakley said. And it would extend the length of a wiretap from 15 days to 30 days, in line with federal law.

The current wiretapping law was enacted in 1968 with an emphasis on organized crime. Multiple speakers at a news conference this morning at Coakley’s office in downtown Boston stressed that that approach was outdated and that Boston’s crime scene had changed.

We at the ACLU of Massachusetts are unsurprisingly very concerned about the government's plans. Our legislative counsel Gavi Wolfe explains why:

We should be very, very wary of law enforcement claims that it needs more and broader powers to listen in on our private conversations – by phone or email or text.  "Updating" wiretap and other laws should mean fuller protections for our privacy rights, not an expansion of government surveillance powers. 

Let’s call this what it is.  It’s not an ‘update.’  It’s a broad expansion of the wiretap law to allow law enforcement to listen in to private conversations for virtually any investigative purpose. 

The history of expanding this kind of power advises caution.  When law enforcement seeks new ways to investigate people’s private activities, they talk about the need for a narrow “update” and quietly propose major changes.  In this case, there’s a lot of talk about guns and gangs, but the proposal would also allow police to eavesdrop when pursuing the most minor of drug offenses.  It needs a very, very careful look to peel back the rhetoric to find out what freedoms we’d be giving away.

The wiretap proposal has us on the defense, and we'll do whatever we can to ensure that the proposals don't unnecessarily harm our privacy rights. But we're also playing offense.

While we roll up our sleeves and dig into this new wiretap proposal, we are also hard at work trying to mobilize our legislators to support numerous proactive privacy bills at the state house during this session. Help us protect the privacy of all Massachusetts residents by taking action to support those efforts now.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.