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Maryland lawmakers to take up anti-spying measures

Laws and LegislationNational GovernmentNational Security AgencyAmerican Civil Liberties Union

Maryland legislators will consider a package of laws to curb electronic surveillance by police, requiring a search warrant to use drones, email, cellphone towers or license plate readers to track people.

Measures sponsored by a bipartisan pair of senators come amid a national debate over government surveillance after revelations about the extent to which the National Security Agency collects information on U.S. citizens.

The Maryland legislation would go further than federal privacy laws but apply only to state and local police forces.

"We are in a brave new world of technology, and our laws haven't caught up," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bills expected to be introduced next week. "We can't control the NSA, but we can control the state government."

State and federal laws are silent on whether law enforcement officials need probable cause and a judge's order to collect or store electronic information, the bills' sponsors say. Law enforcement agencies have argued that the technology provides a crucial tool for keeping the public safe.

"There has been a lot of national discussion going on in our country about the balancing of our security and our liberties," said Republican Sen. Christopher Shank of Western Maryland, the other co-sponsor. "I don't want to turn over the keys to the next generation and find ourselves in a surveillance state."

Many local police agencies have the technology to track people using cellphone signals and compile data from license plate readers deployed to issue parking tickets.

The Queen Anne's County sheriff's office is one of 17 local law enforcement agencies across the country to apply for federal permission to fly a drone.

The privacy proposals are laid out in four bills expected to be unveiled Tuesday, and would require a warrant before police could deploy a drone or access email accounts, cellphone data or tracking information. It would limit the length of time police can keep license plate reader information to 90 days.

Many federal laws that apply to electronic privacy were enacted in 1986 — before the advent of smartphones and drones and before email use was widespread and its storage virtually infinite.

In 2013, a less ambitious state bill, which would have limited the police's collection of "location information" about citizens from electronic devices, died quietly.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which backed last year's proposal by Del. Jeff Waldstreicher, said the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden have changed the debate.

"People are all of a sudden saying, 'What? The government is doing what?' " said Sara Love, the ACLU's director of public policy.

At least eight other states have adopted laws regulating drones and five have laws regulating automatic license plate readers, according to a tally by the ACLU.

ecox@baltsun.com

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