Lansing Watchdog: State Legislators Join Multi-State Privacy Effort

POST BY Shelli Weisberg Legislative Director

Michigan lawmakers will return to the Capitol this week seeking to make the second and final year of this 98th legislature one in which both they and their parties can claim political victory. 

House members, in the final year of their term, are looking to either protect their seat or advance their career. Many will move on to other political offices; others will go into the private sector. Senate members, with two more years to their terms, have no immediate pressure except to ward off a challenge by the many departing House members with designs on those longer-term Senate seats.     

Owing to past experience, the final year of a legislative session can be haphazard, especially given this era of weak party leadership and precarious caucus unity.  It is “every person for themselves” as individual legislators strive for prominence and visibility. For the ACLU of Michigan, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – or I should say it is a thing we can take advantage of. Because we are a multiple-issue organization with no fealty to any political party, we can promote a myriad of bills and policies that advance the ACLU agenda. 

The right to privacy is an enduring ACLU issue, one that becomes all the more pressing as our capacity to safeguard our privacy is outpaced by advancing technology. Later this month, the ACLU of Michigan will participate with a bi-partisan group of House members—including Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor and Rep. Jim Runstad, R-White Lake—in the launch of nationwide campaign to encourage citizens to take control of their privacy (#TakeCTRL). 

In the digital age, governments and corporations armed with powerful tools can get at our personal information without our knowledge or consent. The risk these tools pose to privacy is worsened by the fact that state privacy laws have lagged behind technological change. Every person should have the right to decide who they want to share private information with. Privacy is not about keeping secrets, it is about maintaining control over our own lives. 

This multi-state privacy initiative is being launched in 15 states on January 20.  In Michigan, various legislators will introduce bills to:

  • Safeguard student data - In today’s schools, highly sensitive student information is being shared with third-party servers. Despite the sensitivity of this information, rules limiting access to and use of this information by third parties and school officials are frequently weak or non-existent.
  • Protect citizen’s electronic communications - Laws protecting the content of Americans’ private electronic communications, which date back to the mid-1980s, are so antiquated that they simply are not up to the task of protecting Americans’ privacy more than 15 years into the 21st Century. Legislation would empower Michigan to provide reasonable privacy protections for their citizens’ emails and other electronic information where federal law has failed to do so.
  • Create protocol for the use of “ALPRs - State and local government agencies are increasingly deploying “automatic license-plate readers” (ALPRs), which can read the license plate of every vehicle that drives by their lenses, enabling the government to surreptitiously monitor and record vehicle locations.  While ALPRs have many beneficial uses, ranging from toll collection to finding cars involved in child kidnappings, they also can record every location a vehicle travels to and log that information for months or even years.  Legislation would ensure that, absent a warrant, ALPR records of where citizens who are not suspected of a crime travel are deleted within a short period of time.
  • Create protocol for the use of cell site simulators - Cell site simulators, which are often referred to by the brand name StingRays, are devices that act as cell towers, tricking cell phones within range to reveal information.  While StingRays hold value as a law-enforcement tool, they can sweep up data from phones that are not part of an investigation.  Legislation would prohibit StingRays from being used indiscriminately to gather electronic information from large numbers of cell phones.

We are excited about this opportunity to engage in a national effort to remind citizens that the right to privacy endures. We urge everyone to take control of their privacy by encouraging their elected representatives to support ACLU-sponsored legislation. 

The right to privacy is an enduring ACLU issue, one that becomes all the more pressing as our capacity to safeguard our privacy is outpaced by advancing technology.

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