The latest scuffle over online privacy is brewing up in Georgia. An aggressive new law is set to take effect today which will force sex offenders to hand over their internet passwords, screen names, and e-mail addresses to the government for monitoring purposes. Several other states also have efforts that track sex offender's email and screen names. However, Georgia, which has 16,000 registered offenders, will be the first state to demand the sex offenders’ passwords as well.
A similar law in Utah was already struck down by a federal judge, who ruled that it violated the privacy rights of an offender who challenged it. However, that ruling was rather narrow as it applied to an offender tried on a military conviction who had never been in Utah's court or prison system.
Critics of the Georgian law say that it not only violates the privacy rights of offenders, but it also places undue stress on the already tight-for-cash Georgian law enforcement. Sara Totonchi of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights states, "There's certainly a privacy concern. This essentially will give law enforcement the ability to read e-mails between family members, between employers."
State Sen. Cecil Staton (R.) who wrote the bill argues that it is necessary to strip the rights of some citizens to protect the rights to life and liberty of others, particularly children. He states that the benefits of the bill, which will allow law enforcement to detect stalking by predators sooner "outweighs a lot of the rights of these individuals."
He states, "We limit where they can live, we make their information available on the Internet. To some degree, we do invade their privacy. But the feeling is, they have forfeited, to some degree, some privacy rights."
Most states do compromise sex offenders’ privacy to some extent by making their addresses available online in registries. However, Georgia and Utah are the only states to propose legislation to take offenders passwords, according to civil rights researchers. Others argue the bill isn't tough enough. While the bill threatens violators with a possible return to prison, some believe this won't deter many.
Says State Sen. Staton, "My hunch is, where there's a will, there's a way. If people are intent on violating this law, there are many different ways. What's important is we have given law enforcement a tool."
One critical issue at stake with the Georgian law is lack of specificity. While the law is clearly meant to target offenders seeking to exploit children, it does not differentiate by crime. Thus those found guilty of underage consensual sex, public indecency, or other sex crimes will likely be forced to turn over their passwords as well, bringing into question whether the law is targeting who it intends to.