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    Illinois Law Takes Aim At Social Media-Aided Flash Mobs

    Written by

    Ben Richmond

    Contributing Editor

    Governor Pat Quinn (via)

    Naturally, the city Nelson Algren said "that was to forge out of steel and blood-red neon its own peculiar wilderness," would be the one to forge mayhem out of a singing and dancing, Internet trend. In response, Illinois governor Pat Quinn just signed a law that is designed to fight the ‘flash mobs’ of teenagers that have materialized and run amok Wild One-style on the city’s ritzy and tourist-laden Michigan Avenue.

    The legislation doubled the maximum penalty for people who use social media or phones to organize “mob action” from one to three, to three to six years. The bill also legally enshrined the rights of law enforcement to demand information such as location data from Internet Service Providers without requiring a warrant or even a subpoena.

    The words ‘flash mob’ conjure up the most innocent of images in most people’s heads and search fields—everyone showing up and doing a big coordinated dance together or whatever. But these kids today—from London to Philadelphia, to smaller towns like Germantown, Maryland--have used the flash mob to overrun convenience stores and donut shops, leaving only destruction and incriminating security cam footage in their wake.

    In Chicago, police say young people have used Facebook and Twitter to join up to rob people on trains and form the unruly mobs that terrorized Michigan Avenue in March and perhaps even on Saturday itself. Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile is at the heart of Chicago’s tourism industry, the revenue from which Illinois lawmakers will fight to defend.

    The law that governs the collection of data from cell phones and ISPs is from 1986, and was forged in a world where the iPhone—and the myriad types of data that it carries—was inconceivable. “It didn’t take into account what the modern cellphone has — your location, the content of communications that are easily readable, including Facebook posts, chats, texts and all that stuff,” Ohio State law professor Peter P. Swire told the New York Times. Thus, law enforcement and judges are left to wing it, without a clear standard of where legal protection ends, and where admissable evidence begins.

    Illinois’s new legislation hardly feels up-to-date, using language like “electronic communication,” which, elsewhere, is defined by law as including pagers. It also continues the trend of giving law enforcement easier access to information on cell phones than their paper-based equivalents from days gone by.

    The legislation states that an ISP must provide, “at a minimum, the name, e-mail address, internet service provider address, and location information (if available) of the person to which the communication identity is registered” upon request of a law enforcement officer who has probable cause to make that request. The language makes it seem inconsistent with federal law, which states that ISPs cannot disclose subscriber identifying information to government agents without at least a subpoena.

    Help for those concerned for their civil liberties may come from that high-profile civil liberty violator: the Feds. On March 6, a bipartisan group of representatives introduced the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act, H.R. 983, which specifically addresses the question of geolocation data. “"When current law affords more protections for a letter in a filing cabinet than an email on a server, it's clear our policies are outdated,” said Rep. Suzan Delbene, one of the bill’s sponsors.  This bill will update privacy protections for consumers while resolving competing interests between innovation, international competitiveness, and public safety."

    Momentum is building to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Protection Act. The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a package in April that will protect email and other data stored in the cloud from government searches without a warrant. Maybe the bill, with supporters spanning from the ACLU to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, can ride a wave of anti-governement intrusion-backlash all the way into law. Until then, though, keep your emails clean, and stay out of flash mobs.