Liberals, Conservatives Unite on Privacy Legislation

BY JIM NOLAN Richmond Times-Dispatch | Posted: Tuesday, February 25, 2014 12:00 am

It’s not often you see some of the most conservative lawmakers in Virginia standing arm in arm with the American Civil Liberties Union.

But the frequent adversaries were allies Monday in their support of House Bill 17. It would add real-time location information broadcast by devices such as cellphones to the list of telecommunications records for which law enforcement officials must first obtain a warrant before collecting.

After being put off several times so all sides could figure out a compromise, the bill cleared the Senate Courts of Justice committee on a 14-1 vote and now heads to the full chamber.

Supporters of the bill say the absence of the requirement in the current law allows law enforcement to gather real-time tracking data on any citizen with little restriction or oversight — and constitutes a threat to the privacy of law-abiding citizens.

Others suggested that when a customer gives, or allows, data to be used by a private third party such as a telecommunications provider, or software application, that there should be no expectation of privacy.

But advocates say giving the data to a private company is one thing; giving it to the government is a different matter.

ACLU Virginia Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said the rapid advances in technology have left court rulings on Fourth Amendment issues way behind the times.

“We need better protections for people’s privacy,” she said.

And that’s a theme that resonates with liberals and conservatives alike, including the bill’s sponsors, Dels. Robert G. Marshall, R-Prince William, and Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond.

“This is a pushback from the left and the right,” said Marshall, a social conservative who presented the bill Monday with the liberal-minded Carr. The pair drew looks as something of a political odd couple.

“Too much policing of that type is destructive to the common social good,” he added.

Marshall said the bill, while not going as far as he would have liked, strikes a balance that preserves space between citizens and the people delegated to achieve order.

“We wanted to make explicit what is implicit (in the Constitution),” he said. “You have a right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.”

After some negotiation, the bill overcame objections from law enforcement groups. The measure still allows for law enforcement to gather real-time location information without obtaining a warrant in emergencies or with the consent of the customer of the device being tracked.

But supporters said the measure is an important first step in providing a balance between liberty, security and privacy in a digital age.

“I think increasingly everyone is understanding how important privacy is to liberty,” said Gastañaga, referring to the bill’s strange bedfellows.

“Everyone wants liberty with security, but there is no liberty without privacy, and people are starting to get that.”