Digital privacy bill nears House vote

Wednesday, February 24, 1999

The Wireless Privacy Enhancement Act of 1999, scheduled for a vote before the U.S. House tomorrow, would bar unauthorized reception of all digital phone transmissions, whether or not the content of the intercepted conversation is published or divulged.

The bill would make it illegal both to intercept and to divulge information gathered from an intentionally overheard cell phone conversation, said Luke Rose, legislative assistant to bill sponsor Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M.

But contrary to some reports, “the bill does not interfere with the public's access to public safety information,” Rose said. Journalists and private citizens will still be able to monitor police, fire and rescue communications – which are not digital transmissions — via scanners, he says.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” Rose said, noting that prior to the vote Wilson would introduce an amendment clarifying that the bill was “only out to get the bad guys.”

Greg Nojeim, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that Wilson's clarification of the bill's language would correct the original measure's First Amendment problems by protecting those who unknowingly reported information from an intercepted cell phone conversation.

First Amendment advocates had been concerned by what they said was vague language in the bill that could have held a reporter liable for reporting information from an intercepted cell phone conversation even if he or she were aware of where the information had come from.

However, Rose said that the amendment to the bill would make it clear that a third party — such as a reporter — unaware that information given to him or her was from an intercepted cell phone conversation would not be liable for publishing the information.

But Nojeim said that the bill would improve current law by making “merely intentional interception of cell phone conversations something that is subject to civil liability.”

David Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said that he didn't believe the new bill would resolve privacy problems people have with digital phone use.

“[EPIC] would like to see regular cell phone companies provide adequate security themselves and not hide behind this fig leaf of a bill,” Banisar said.