Modern field guide to security and privacy

State lawmakers make coordinated push for robust privacy safeguards

The American Civil Liberties Union worked with Republican and Democratic state lawmakers nationwide to advocate for legislation to strengthen privacy protections for students, consumers, and employees.

Illustration by Erick Montes

Republican and Democratic legislators from 16 states and the District of Columbia advocated on Wednesday for legislation to strengthen privacy safeguards for employees and students as well as to curtail the growing use of surveillance technology.

The American Civil Liberties Union coordinated the bipartisan effort in a bid to kickstart a grassroots campaign around privacy issues that the group hopes will resonates at the national level. 

While privacy issues such as National Security Agency surveillance and consumers' growing use of encryption technology have become hot topics in Washington, many privacy advocates are frustrated with Congress's unwillingness to pass legislation to increase protections on consumers' personal data.

The nationwide campaign "underscores the fact that this is one issue where Democrats and Republicans and Independents can come together to push forward a reform agenda," said Anthony Romero, the ACLU director. The ACLU did not sponsor any of the proposed bills, but supported them.

The bills range from ones that limit law enforcement access to smartphones and other digital devices to legislation meant and make it illegal for school administrators to force students into to revealing their social media passwords. 

Supporters of the privacy push likened the campaign to other activists' strategies to focus on state houses, such as the campaign to legalize marijuana that has gained steam nationally. 

"We think it’s essential for states to draw a line in the sand and say your information is only going to be collected with your permission or a warrant,” said Michael Boldin of the Tenth Amendment Center, a states' rights group that is partnering with the ACLU on the campaign. The two groups are promoting the effort on Twitter with the hashtag #TakeCTRL.

In Alabama, for instance, state Rep. Arnold Mooney (R) planned to introduce a bill to ensure student maintain privacy even when their information is help by third-party such as data storage companies. 

Michigan’s Rep. Peter Lucido (R) is advocating for legislation in his state to curtail both law enforcement and businesses uses of technology such as license plate readers that can record and track people's whereabouts. "Privacy is paramount," he said.

Many of the state lawmakers that joined the #TakeCTRL campaign are renewing efforts to push for privacy bills, some of which  previously failed to pass state legislatures. State Sen. Karen Spilka (D) and Rep. Sarah Peake (D) of Massachusetts reaffirmed support for their Electronic Privacy Act, which would require police obtain a warrant before accessing electronic content, such as e-mails, chats, information stored in the cloud.

"Our electronic devices store some of our most private thoughts and details of our daily activities, and this personal information should not be open to government inspection without a warrant," said Senator Spilka said in a press release. "The Electronic Privacy Act protects the privacy of Massachusetts residents, updating our search warrant laws to fit the realities of the digital age."

In North Carolina, Rep. Duane Hall (D) announced he would reintroduce a student privacy bill that didn’t make it through the state senate in the 2013-2014 session. The bill would make it illegal for schools to require that students give up their social media passwords to the school except in a limited scope of cases, such as harassment.

"When school officials demand access to an individual’s social accounts, it constitutes a significant violation of personal privacy, and it would have a chilling effect on free speech," Rep. Hall said in a press release. He plans on introducing the bill when the legislative session begins in April.

The following states are involved in the legislative movement: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as the District of Columbia.

An interactive map of states and the topics of proposed bills can be found here.


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