Rep. Peter Welch, joined by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Jon Conyers Jr. (D-MI), reintroduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act) last week. The legislation creates clear rules about when law enforcement agencies can access and track Americans’ electronic location data.
“Cell phones are in the pockets and purses of most Americans,” said Welch. “While tracking technology has transformed our lives in many positive ways, it also poses a risk to privacy through potential misuse of tracking data. The time has come to modernize our statutes to reflect the technology of our age. This bipartisan legislation protects Americans’ right to privacy while ensuring law enforcement officials are able do their important jobs.”
“Buying a smartphone shouldn’t be interpreted as giving the government a free pass to track your movements,” said Wyden. “GPS data can be a valuable tool for law enforcement, but our laws need to keep up with technology and set out exactly when and how the government can collect Americans’ electronic location data.”
“As technology makes tracking people’s movements easier and less expensive, we need to update our laws to protect privacy and respect individual rights,” said Chaffetz. “In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Jones, which was certainly a step in the right direction, we need clarification specific to the use of GPS technology. This law will settle the controversy and provide specific and clear guidelines to ensure this valuable and effective technology is not abused.”
“Smartphones make our lives easier, but the privacy of the individual and due process are fundamental to the American way of life,” said Kirk. “Law enforcement can greatly benefit from information obtained from smartphones and GPS devices – but only if it’s obtained legally.”
“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 Conyers. “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.”
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 ‘Stingrays’ and other devices. 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.