Citing a deadly combination of modern-day crimes and new modes of communication, Gov.Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey called for the legislature to update the state's 49-year-old wiretapping law so that it is relevant in the 21st century. Privacy advocates, however, fear the move is overreach and an unnecessary expansion of police surveillance.
At a press conference rolling out the new bill Tuesday, Baker and Healey said the current state law that allows prosecutors and police to ask a court's permission to listen in on phone conversations is outdated and leaves law enforcement technologically disadvantaged. The current law was tailored to traditional organized crime investigations and only allows investigators to tap landlines.
The new bill would change the 1968 law to let investigators gain judicial permission to access a suspect's digital communications, including email, text messages, social media and cell phone conversations.
"That statute that's currently on the books has significantly hindered law enforcement's ability to investigate and solve some of Massachusetts' most difficult cases," Baker said.
The bill also expands the crimes police can wiretap for to include gang violence, illegal gun sales, human trafficking and more.
Civil rights and criminal defense attorney Harvey Silverglate says the bill goes too far.
"This is not a technical update in order to take into account the new modalities, improvements and changes in communications technology. This is an expansion of the state's power to invade the shrinking privacy of the individual citizen," Silverglate told WGBH News.
Silverglate said that state officials could much more easily updated to the law to cover modern communications without expanding the list of crimes police can use wiretapping on.
Prosecutors, including Healey, said the change would not harm Massachusetts citizen's civil rights or invade their privacy.
"The state's 11 district attorneys are sensitive, as is the governor and the attorney general, to the balance which we in a free society must have between citizen's right to privacy and the responsibility the government has to protect it's citizens from crime, particularly violent crime. And we feel that this statute strikes that balance," said Cape Cod District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, who spoke for all of the state's top prosecutors.
The bill will have to pass the Democrat-controlled Legislature to become law.