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NSA Controversies Spur States into Action

January 9, 2014 By

A year of revelations about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program has sent legislators back to statehouses determined to protect digital privacy.

States don’t have the power to halt the NSA’s activities. But state lawmakers already are proposing limits on how local law enforcement officers can access data, including emails, cellphone locations and license plate images. They’re responding to a groundswell of citizen anger over the NSA data collection programs and growing concerns that government surveillance is infringing on civil liberties.

A majority of Americans wants stricter limits on the government’s collection of communications data, according to a Pew Research Center poll taken last summer following the leak of classified documents detailing the NSA’s surveillance programs by former government contractor Edward Snowden. The concerns are bipartisan: The same proportion of Democrats and Republicans said they are more worried about their civil liberties than they are about terrorism.

“People realize that local law enforcement agencies are tracking their cellphone locations and getting access to communication, so a lot of the anger that folks have about the NSA will get channeled into state legislation,” said Allie Bohm, policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. Two federal judges recently disagreed about whether the NSA’s data collection program is constitutional, setting the stage for a possible U.S. Supreme Court battle.

State lawmakers are likely to focus on individual technologies, rather than trying to pass broad measures to protect digital privacy, Bohm said. For example, states might place limits on how long police can keep data collected from license plate readers, which are scanners attached to police cars or road signs that take photos of each passing license plate, recording the time and location. They also might require police to get warrants before they examine cellphone data, and restrict government drone use.

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