Bipartisan coalition opposes warrantless electronic tracking by government

A bipartisan coalition argued Tuesday that government agents should have to obtain a warrant before using an electronic device to track someone.
 
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) appeared at a news conference at the Capitol Visitors Center to tout their Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, which Wyden first introduced earlier this year with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

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The bill would require law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant before using an individual’s cellphone, laptop or other electronic device to track his or her location.
 
“This legislation is absolutely necessary because of the technology and the ability of the state to track you wherever you go regardless of lacking any probable cause,” Kirk said.


“I think this bill is a good first step in protecting our GPS rights, but we may need to go further.”
 
Wyden said most legislators don’t “get it” when it comes to tech policy and try to apply outdated laws from the brick-and-mortar days to digital innovations, citing Chaffetz and co-sponsor Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) as exceptions.

He noted that it has been 25 years — almost to the day — since the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) was signed, and said his bill would update those rules to require a warrant while preserving exemptions for legitimate national security emergencies.


“The laws governing new media are essentially as old as the staffers we hire to manage new media,” Wyden said.
 
Jim Dempsey, vice president for public policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said most Americans are unaware that under current law the government doesn’t need a warrant to track their locations or claim access to their email accounts.

Dempsey called the laws governing electronic privacy “slow and inadequate” and said the courts have been slow to enforce what privacy advocates believe are protections enshrined in the Constitution.
 
Both Kirk and Wyden emphasized that their bill should attract bipartisan support, pointing to the unlikely makeup of the Digital Due Process coalition that hosted the news conference. Member institutions comprise both liberal and conservative groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Kirk said the legislation is an evolution and has a better chance of moving forward in Congress than other recent bills aimed at protecting consumers from warrantless tracking.
 
“I think this is a bill that should attract strong Republican support to make sure we protect your privacy rights,” Kirk said. “If we get bogged down, especially in the House, we’ve accomplished nothing.”
 
The lawmakers also suggested that more updates to ECPA might be necessary as consumers increasingly store their personal data in the cloud, where the laws regarding access by government officials are similarly outdated.

Kirk said foreign users in countries such as Denmark have been reluctant to sign up for Web services from U.S. firms because they fear the lack of privacy protections. He argued that passing such protections would increase exports for U.S. Web firms.

Wyden agreed.


“I see the Internet as the shipping lane of the 21st century,” the Oregon Democrat said, arguing that privacy protections are paramount to ensuring U.S. firms can compete globally in the digital marketplace.

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