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Hearings slated for surveillance technology, WIAA open records bills

By   /   February 8, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. – A bill that would shine light on the emerging investigative technologies and techniques being used by law enforcement is headed for a public hearing this week.

The Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations has scheduled a hearing on the legislation for 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Capitol.

As law enforcement agencies face new crime-fighting challenges in the Digital Age, they are employing technology and tactics that raise civil liberties concerns. Even more problematic is just how unaware the public is about this Brave New World of policing.

State Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, and state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, co-authored the bill that would create a legislative committee with oversight of secret investigative technologies and techniques.

AP file photo

CAN THEY HEAR YOU NOW? Stingrays, also known as “cell site simulators,” like this one in Tacoma, Wash., are cell phone surveillance devices that mimic cell phone towers and send out signals to trick cell phones in the area into transmitting their locations and identifying information.

“Many of these technologies have the capability of collecting massive amounts of personal data risking infringement of constitutional rights if not used properly,” the lawmakers wrote in a memo soliciting co-sponsorship.

Proprietary agreements often keep secret the details of the surveillance technology.

“We believe this rapid advancement of technology merits a level of legislative oversight not currently in existence,” Craig and Wanggaard wrote.

The committee would have subpoena power to access information on any new surveillance technology employed by police. It also would be able to obtain information related to military equipment transfers from the federal government to local law enforcement.

Under the bill, if a Wisconsin law enforcement agency intends to acquire technological services or devices not currently in use in the state, the police agency must notify the committee before making the purchase.

A law enforcement agency that is to receive weapons, equipment, or armaments from a federal program must notify the committee of the proposed transfer before the transfer takes place.

In question are the weapons that have come from the federal government’s 1033 program, which  allows the secretary of Defense to “transfer to Federal and State agencies personal property of the Department of Defense, including small arms and ammunition, that the Secretary determines is – (A) suitable for use by such agencies in counter-drug activities; and (B) excess to the needs of the Department of Defense.”

As a result, machines of war can now be found in the arsenals of small-town police departments across the country.

The legislative committee also would have the authority to “investigate all facets of a John Doe investigation,” once officially closed. That provision comes in the wake of Wisconsin’s notorious political probe declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

“One of the constitutional duties and powers of the Legislature is to make sure that if there is bad action occurring at a state agency, that those civil officers could be removed from office if they are committing egregious acts while in office,” Craig told Wisconsin Watchdog in late December.

“How is the Legislature supposed to have authority to do that but not have the information on whether or not the conduct occurred?” he added. “The only way to do that is with our subpoena power, particularly when it comes to John Doe investigations.”

RELATED: Bill creates legislative committee to investigate John Doe investigations

The panel would periodically report its findings to the full Legislature.

“Law enforcement would have to let us know so that we have a pulse of the ramifications of what could occur if this technology is misused,” Craig said.

The State Affairs and Government Operations Committee also will hold hearings on several other bills, including a proposal that would open to the public the meetings and records of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association. 

Authored by state Rep. John Nygren, the bill comes in the wake of the national wedgy the WIAA received over its December email reminding school administrators of the association’s sportsmanship “guidelines.”  The document reads more like an edict, urging school officials to take immediate action to stop student sections at sporting events from chanting things like “air ball,” “overrated,” and other expressions someone might find offensive.

“This is political correctness run amok. Let kids be kids. Let’s enjoy the athletic experience. The bureaucrats can regulate their own games,” Nygren, R-Marinette, told Wisconsin Watchdog last month.


M.D. Kittle is national First Amendment reporter at Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]