LANSING, Mich. (Nov. 3, 2020) – Today, Michigan voters easily passed a state constitutional amendment that elevates the privacy of a person’s electronic communications and data to the same level as “persons, houses, papers and possessions.”

The Michigan legislature put Proposal 20-2 on the ballot. It requires any Michigan government agency to obtain a search warrant in order to access a person’s electronic data or electronic communication. The amendment added the following highlighted words to Article I Sec. 11 of the state constitution.

Sec. 11. The person, houses, papers, and possessions, ELECTRONIC DATA, AND ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS of every person shall be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures. No warrant to search any place or to seize any person or things OR TO ACCESS ELECTRONIC DATA OR ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS shall issue without describing them, nor without probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation. The provisions of this section shall not be construed to bar from evidence in any criminal proceeding any narcotic drug, firearm, bomb, explosive or any other dangerous weapon, seized by a peace officer outside the curtilage of any dwelling house in this state.

The ballot measure passed 88-12% – with 33% reporting at the time of publication.

Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) along with 27 cosponsors, introduced Senate Joint Resolution G (SJRG) back in June 2019, beginning the process of putting the measure before voters. Both houses of the legislature passed the resolution unanimously.

“The right of individuals to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures is fundamental and should be clearly addressed in our state’s constitution,” Runestead said in a statement when he introduced the measure.

Language in SJRG was modeled on Missouri Amendment 9, which passed in with an overwhelming 75 percent of the vote in 2014. A similar state constitutional amendment to protect “private and personal information” passed in New Hampshire in 2018.

As the ACLU pointed out in an article supporting the New Hampshire amendment, without protections explicitly enshrined in the state constitution, the right to electronic data privacy exists at the whims of state legislators.

“Without state constitutional protections, privacy is not the … default setting. Rather, it needs to be repeatedly established, protected, and defended by the state legislature each time a new surveillance technology or method is established, which is a common occurrence in our modern technological world. State legislators should not play an endless game of Whack-A-Mole against threats to their residents’ privacy. Relying exclusively on piecemeal statutes or search and seizure provisions written before the dawn of the internet is no way … to protect privacy.”

Practically speaking inclusion of electronic communications and data in the state’s constitutional prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures means state and local police in Michigan are now required to obtain a judicial warrant, supported by probable cause, before accessing cell phones and other electronic devices. It also sets the foundation to help prevent law enforcement from accessing private information through third parties.

IMPACT ON FEDERAL SURVEILLANCE

While a state constitutional amendment only binds state agencies and not the federal government, the amendment does take a step forward in protecting Michiganders from the ever-growing federal surveillance state.

Passage of the amendment sets the foundation to limit state and local surveillance and minimize the amount of personal information collected and stored by state and local governments. By doing so, it also impacts federal surveillance programs that depend on state and local support.

The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through fusion centers and a system known as the “information sharing environment” or ISE.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

In practice, local data collection using ALPRs, stingrays, drones and other spy technologies create the potential for the federal government to track the movement of millions of Americans, and obtain and store information on millions of Americans, including phone calls, emails, web browsing history and text messages, all with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

In a nutshell, without state and local assistance, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. When the state limits surveillance and data collection, it means less information the feds can tap into. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

PARALLEL CONSTRUCTION

By including access to “electronic communications and data” under the same warrant requirements – describing them, probable cause, and supported by oath or affirmation – as “person, houses, papers, and possessions,” it makes such data gathered by federal agencies such as the NSA or FBI and shared with state and local law enforcement more likely to be inadmissible in state criminal proceedings. This protection will remain in place for Michiganders even if federal courts ultimately put the seal of approval on warrantless data collection by the NSA and other federal agencies.

Reuters revealed the extent of such NSA data sharing with state and local law enforcement in an August 2013 article. According to documents obtained by the news agency, the NSA passes information to police through a formerly secret DEA unit known as Special Operations Divisions and the cases “rarely involve national security issues.” Almost all of the information involves regular criminal investigations, not terror-related investigations.

In other words, not only does the NSA collect and store this data, using it to build profiles, the agency encourages state and local law enforcement to violate the Fourth Amendment by making use of this information in their day-to-day investigations.

This is “the most threatening situation to our constitutional republic since the Civil War,” Binney said.

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