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Bills would require police to get warrants for mobile phone location

Location information should enjoy stronger legal protections, the bills' sponsors say

A group of U.S. lawmakers has introduced legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered search warrants before obtaining a suspect's mobile phone location or GPS data, instead of using prosecution-issued subpoenas.

Senators Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act in the Senate Thursday, while Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, and eight other congressmen introduced the same bill in the House of Representatives.

Several privacy and civil liberties groups praised the introduction of the bill. Wyden and Chaffetz introduced similar bills in 2011, but that legislation did not pass.

"New technologies are making it increasingly easy to track and log the location of individuals," Chaffetz said in a statement. "Put simply, the government and law enforcement should not be able to track somebody indefinitely without their knowledge or consent or without obtaining a warrant from a judge."

The sponsors of the bills say various court jurisdictions have conflicting standards and procedures for police to gather GPS and mobile location information.

"GPS technology has evolved into a useful commercial and law enforcement tool but the rules for the use of that tool have not evolved along with it," Wyden said in a statement. "The GPS Act provides law enforcement with a clear mandate for when to obtain a warrant for the geolocation information of an American. It also provides much-needed legal clarity for commercial service providers who often struggle to balance the privacy of their customers with requests for information from law enforcement."

In the 2012, U.S. v. Jones case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled police need a search warrant to physically attach a GPS device to a vehicle, but the court stopped short of requiring warrants for geolocation information from sources such as smartphones or OnStar systems.

The new bills cover all domestic law enforcement acquisitions of U.S. residents' geolocation information without their knowledge. The bills create criminal penalties for surreptitiously using an electronic device to track a person's movements and prohibit commercial service providers from sharing customers' geolocation information with outside entities without customer consent.  

The bills apply both to real-time tracking of a suspect's movements and to acquisition of records of past movements.

Groups voicing support for the GPS Act include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform's DigitalLiberty.net, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA).

The bills are "vital to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans and to set standards that give businesses certainty and citizens greater confidence in their privacy," CCIA President and CEO Ed Black said in an email. "Advancing geolocation technology has created a loophole in our outdated electronic privacy rules. Congress must fix this."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]


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