Opening up records to police

Alisa Roth Jun 12, 2006

Shortly before this story aired, the state police agreed to change the bill so that it clearly required court permission to access phone records.

KAI RYSSDAL: The Bush Administration’s domestic spying program got its first hearing in court today. It was quick. U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor said she won’t decide right away whether the government’s wiretapping operations are constitutional. But some states like the program. Rhode Island’s General Assembly could vote tomorrow to give law enforcement authorities access to consumer data. Not for national security, mind you. Marketplace’s Alisa Roth has more.

ALISA ROTH: The new law would let Rhode Island police find out choice information, like the real name of the person who registers an Internet account and billing data for that account — without a search warrant. All the police would need is what’s called an administrative subpoena. And that doesn’t require a judge’s approval.

Rhode Island Senator Leo Blais is sponsor of one of the bills. He says the new law is just a way to speed up investigations in Internet-based crimes like Web scams or child exploitation.

SEN. LEO BLAIS: It’s no different than if somebody said I saw Rhode Island license plate 206358 hit someone. State police call the Registry of Motor Vehicles and find out who owns the car.

But critics don’t like the analogy. License plate numbers are public. And knowing who owns a car is far less invasive than having somebody’s credit card information or knowing who calls on the phone.

That’s not all, says Ohio State law professor Peter Swire.

PETER SWIRE: There’s absolutely no safeguards built in about how these records will be used. The local police in any Rhode Island town can issue a subpoena without any court oversight, without any record-keeping of how they use the records.

He says states get the right to access data based on federal standards. So, lowering the federal bar is making it easier for states to get more information, too. Steven Brown directs the Rhode Island ACLU.

STEVEN BROWN: Once the legislature accepts the principles behind this bill, it’s just a short step for police to be coming back and saying they need to use these subpeonas in other types of context.

Brown worries the new bill violates basic principles of the criminal justice system. It may take police a little longer to get a search warrant, he says, but at least somebody is keeping an eye on the whole process.

In New York, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.