The Situation Report: Congress Moves to Protect Your Location Privacy

Cell Phone Privacy

Data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union shows that at least 70 state and local law enforcement agencies and more than a dozen Federal agencies own and operate cell site simulators that mimic cell towers and trick cellphones into sharing location data.

Known as “stingrays,” the devices are used to track criminal suspects. But with more than 320 million GPS-equipped cellphones used in the U.S., these secretive devices also regularly capture the location data of countless innocent bystanders.

That could change if Congress adopts a legislative proposal introduced Wednesday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that would require agencies to obtain a search warrant to access location information on citizens without their knowledge, and would prohibit commercial providers from sharing that data with third parties without a person’s consent.

The bill, The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, would update years of conflicting court opinions on the matter. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in U.S. v. Jones that law enforcement agencies must first get a warrant before attaching a GPS tracking device to a vehicle. But the courts have said little about the implications of the skyrocketing number of consumer mobile devices that automatically transmit location data to nearby cell towers.

Introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the so-called GPS Act would also provide for criminal penalties for anybody who secretly uses an electronic device to track another person’s location. The bill provides exemptions, however, for foreign intelligence collection operations, legal guardians tracking children, and situations in which a customer provides consent to share the data.

“Outdated laws shouldn’t be an excuse for open season on tracking Americans, and owning a smartphone or fitness tracker shouldn’t give the government a blank check to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 in a statement. “Law enforcement should be able to use GPS data, but they need to get a warrant.”

According to the ACLU, the actual number of stingray devices in use across the country is not known. The use of stingrays “is often shrouded in secrecy,” according to an ACLU website dedicated to tracking their deployment. The ACLU also claims to have uncovered evidence that Federal and local law enforcement agencies are actively trying to conceal their use of the devices from public scrutiny.

“Geolocation tracking, whether information about where we have been or where we are going, strikes at the heart of personal privacy interests,” Conyers said. “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.”