Privacy advocates are questioning an aggressive Georgia law set to take effect Thursday that would require sex offenders to hand over Internet passwords, screen names and e-mail addresses.
Georgia joins a small band of states complying with guidelines in a 2006 federal law requiring authorities to track Internet addresses of sex offenders, but it is among the first to take the extra step of forcing its 16,000 offenders to turn in their passwords as well.
A federal judge ruled in September that a similar law in Utah violated the privacy rights of an offender who challenged it, though the narrow ruling applied only to one offender who had a military conviction on sex offenses but was never in Utah's court or prison system.
Critics worry about privacy
No one in Georgia has challenged the law yet, but critics say it threatens the privacy of sex offenders and burdens cash-strapped law enforcement officials.
"There's certainly a privacy concern," said Sara Totonchi of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. "This essentially will give law enforcement the ability to read e-mails between family members, between employers."
State Sen. Cecil Staton, who wrote the bill, said the measure is designed to keep the Internet safe for children. Authorities could use the passwords and other information to make sure offenders aren't stalking children online or chatting with them about off-limits topics.
Staton said although the measure may violate the privacy of sex offenders, the need to protect children "outweighs a lot of the rights of these individuals."
"We limit where they can live, we make their information available on the Internet. To some degree, we do invade their privacy," said Staton, a Republican from Macon. "But the feeling is, they have forfeited, to some degree, some privacy rights."
Most states already make the addresses of sex offenders available online. Georgia is one of at least 15 states that have adopted laws requiring sex offenders to detail their e-mail addresses, user names and other Internet handles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Password requirements in two states
But researcher Sarah Hammond said Georgia and Utah appear to be the only states that require sex offenders to also hand over their passwords.
The new requirements are far from watertight. While offenders who don't report their user names and passwords could face probation violations — and possibly a return to prison — supporters admit it isn't hard to skirt the law's requirements.
"My hunch is, where there's a will, there's a way," Staton said. "If people are intent on violating this law, there are many different ways. What's important is we have given law enforcement a tool."
For offenders like Kelly Piercy, convicted of child pornography charges in 1999, the password requirement is the latest example of "pre-emptive justice."
Piercy, who suffers from a degenerative disease that has left him blind, said he already struggles to keep track of the roughly dozen screen names he has created, and he doubts deputies would have much sympathy for him if he forgets to report one.
"I made a mistake and I need to pay for it. And I did. But now we're the target of pre-emptive justice — and that concerns me," he said. "How much further down the road can sex offenders be chased?"