Senator Proposes Geolocation Privacy Legislation

Tuesday, March 22, 2011



Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) is drafting legislation that would require law enforcement officials to obtain a court-ordered search warrant before conducting electronic tracking operations on cars and cell phones.

The bill would secure U.S. citizen's privacy in regards to the use of GPS and wireless device location monitoring in the course of investigations.

Laws that currently govern tracking and monitoring where drafted years ago before the advent of today's wireless technology, and multiple court decisions have sided with both plaintiffs and defendants, leaving much room for interpretation.

"I think that a lot of people have not really put their arms around the dimensions of this, the fact that everybody's got a handheld electronic device, a cell phone, a GPS system. Everybody's carrying them around everywhere and probably aren't thinking that much about the fact that someone may be keeping tabs on them," Senator Wyden said.

The bill will also address how geolocation information stored on systems that detail an individuals previous whereabouts should be governed in investigations.

The proposed legislation, called the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act) pits service providers, privacy advocates and civil liberties groups against a multiple law enforcement organizations.

"It's really up to Congress to step in and provide clear rules for both the government and companies and judges that are faced with these issues. That's the only way to bring the necessary clarity to the location privacy situation," said Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Justice Department has argued that citizens have no reasonable expectation of privacy concerning stored records detailing the location of their cell phones, and other law enforcement officials have speculated that requiring warrants for mobile surveillance will hinder investigations.

Privacy advocates insist that geolocation monitoring and records should be considered in the same light as the wiretapping of citizen's communications, arguing that protections would not prevent tracking or access to stored records by law enforcement, but would simply require they make a case for due cause before a judge and obtain a warrant first.

"It's a smart proposal. The federal wiretap law should be updated to take account of new transactional data. There is clearly a privacy interest in locational data and there is also a need for greater clarity," says the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Marc Rotenberg.


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