Bill seeks to crack down on warrantless government tracking

March 16, 2017  - By
Image: GPS World

As government agencies expand their use of cell-site simulators or “stingrays” and other digital tracking technology, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Rep. John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich., introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (known as the GPS act) to create clear rules for when agencies can access and track an individual’s geolocation information.

Chaffetz introduced the House version of the bill on March 6, with four Republican and three Democratic cosponsors. Wyden introduced the Senate bill Feb. 15.

Courts have issued conflicting opinions about whether the government needs a warrant to track Americans through their cell phones and other GPS devices. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2012’s U.S. vs. Jones case that attaching a GPS tracking device to a vehicle requires a warrant, but it did not address other digital location tracking, including through cell phones, OnStar systems and consumer electronics devices.

The GPS Act applies to all domestic law enforcement acquisitions of the geolocation information of individual Americans without their knowledge, including acquisitions from private companies and direct acquisitions through the use of cell-site technology. It would also combat high-tech stalking by creating criminal penalties for surreptitiously using an electronic device to track a person’s movements, and it would prohibit commercial service providers from sharing customers’ geolocation information with outside entities without customer consent.

Wyden and Chaffitiz have now introduced versions of the GPS Act four times since 2011. Though hearings have been held, the Act has yet to make it out of committee for a vote.

“Outdated laws shouldn’t be an excuse for open season on tracking Americans, and owning a smartphone or fitness tracker shouldn’t give the government a blank check to track your movements,” Wyden said. “Law enforcement should be able to use GPS data, but they need to get a warrant. This bill sets out clear rules to make sure our laws keep up with the times.”

“Congress has an obligation to act quickly to protect Americans from violations of their privacy made possible by emerging technologies,” Chaffetz said. “As we welcome innovative technologies that help fight crime, we must be mindful of the potential for abuse. This bill will build a framework governing the use of geolocation and cell site simulator technologies.”

“We must enact the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act to require the government to obtain a warrant based on probable cause to compel companies such as cell phone service providers to disclose the geolocation information of their customers,” said Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (MI-13). “Geolocation tracking, whether information about where we have been or where we are going, strikes at the heart of personal privacy interests. The pattern of our movements reveals much about ourselves. When individuals are tracked in this way, the government is able to generate a profile of a person’s public movements that includes details about a person’s familial, political, professional, religious, and other intimate associations. That is why we need this legislation to provide a strong and clear legal standard to protect this information.”

Support for the Act

Technology and civil rights organizations praised the bill’s introduction.

Neema Singh Guliani, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union: “In today’s world, most Americans use cell phones or other electronic devices that are capable of tracking their every move, including visits to a mosque, doctor’s office, domestic violence shelter, or political rally. This information that the government should not be able to get without a warrant – yet law enforcement routinely fails to meet this standard. Congress should swiftly pass the GPS Act to protect this sensitive information.”

Gabe Rottman, deputy director of the Freedom, Technology & Security Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology: “As we move into the world of connected devices, and as the sheer number of these devices grow, location tracking becomes more accurate, and more revealing. Basic notions of American privacy necessitate passage of this important reform to require a warrant for location tracking.”

Amie Stepanovich, U.S. policy manager at Access Now: “Computer scientists have proven that even a few location points can be used to reveal incredibly broad and personal information about an individual. At the same time, ever more devices are collecting our location data. Law enforcement agencies are using an increasingly sophisticated array of technology to obtain that information without proper legal protections. What you don’t know can hurt you. Access Now applauds the GPS Act for protecting this sensitive information and mandating a warrant requirement for law enforcement access.”

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation: “Geolocation data paints a detailed portrait of our daily lives that reveals sensitive information about us and our families — whether a visit to a children’s cancer specialist or to a church, synagogue or mosque. The government shouldn’t be able to track us without a warrant just because we use cellphones. The GPS Act ensures all Americans have strong legal protections for their geolocation data.”

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