States Keeping an Electronic Eye Out

State governments have joined the federal effort to use more and better technology to root out terrorist threats.

Legislatures around the country have worked on a flurry of bills aimed at giving more leeway on who they can spy on and for what reasons. But how many more of those initiatives become law the farther we get from Sept. 11 is another question.

"I don't think a lot of them will carry over" to the next legislative session, said Janna Goodwin, a staff member at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "I think it was just due to the 9/11 fervor."

Roughly half of the nation's states introduced electronic surveillance bills after Sept. 11, and about half of those passed.

The number of wiretaps ordered by federal and state authorities on cellular telephones, pagers, fax machines and e-mail increased by nearly 20 percent from two years ago, according to NCSL. Some of that activity was done in compliance with the federal USA Patriot Act, which was passed after 9/11 and gave the government broader surveillance powers.

A big move many states took after Sept. 11 was the use of "roving wiretaps." In those cases, a tap is placed on the caller and not the phone, which helps track cell phones. Fourteen states have laws dealing specifically with the surveillance of cellular and cordless phones.

New York and Maryland are among the states that have passed laws allowing the use of roving wiretaps. Efforts to pass similar laws in Connecticut, Illinois and Michigan seemed to have a good future earlier this year but were defeated.

At least 21 states outlaw the use of hidden cameras or video recorders in private areas.

Recent polls suggest that, although backing for some of these spy techniques may be slipping, states still have public support for laws that would put high-tech gear to work in the search for would-be terrorists.

A Harris Poll released Oct. 3, 2001 showed that 86 percent of the more than 1,000 adults polled nationwide supported the use of facial-recognition technology; 81 percent supported closer monitoring of banking and credit-card transactions; 63 percent supported expanded camera surveillance on streets and public places; 63 percent supported monitoring of Internet discussions and chat rooms; and 54 percent supported more monitoring of cell phones and e-mails.

But a similar poll by Harris released last month shows that support for these proposals has somewhat declined.

There still is large support for expanded camera surveillance, but there has been a sharp drop in support for the monitoring of Internet discussions, chat rooms and other forums, cell phones and e-mail activity.

The percentage of people who favor expanded camera surveillance in public has stayed at about 58 percent for the past six months; a decrease from the 63 percent who favored it in September of last year.

But support for having police monitor chat rooms and other Web forums continues to fall, from 63 percent a year ago to 55 percent six months ago, to only 42 percent today. A similar decline is found in support for expanded government monitoring of cell phones and e-mail correspondence. One year ago, 54 percent favored this activity, and six months later it had fallen to 44 percent; it is now down to 32 percent.

"Support for them is likely to be stronger, is my guess," if the United States goes to war with Iraq, said Humphrey Taylor, chairman of the Harris Poll, a service of Harris Interactive.