Panel approves giving police emergency access to cellphone locations

The House Energy and Commerce Committee passed a bill Wednesday that would allow law enforcement agencies to access a cellphone user’s location information in an emergency.

The bill — the Kelsey Smith Act, named after a Kansas teen who was murdered in 2007 — would allow law enforcement officials to obtain tracking data if that person’s life or physical well-being is believed to be in danger.

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Currently, “that information remains locked up behind a bureaucracy at the wireless provider,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on communications.

The bill was introduced last year by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) and ushered through the subcommittee by Walden.

For Wednesday’s markup, Walden introduced an amendment to the bill aimed at increasing its privacy protections, including requiring a court to retroactively approve emergency requests for cellphone location information.

The amended bill “provide[s] the right balance to save lives and prevent abuse,” Walden said.

The full committee's ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) thanked Walden for bipartisan work on the issue before Wednesday’s markup but criticized the process.

“A hearing and subcommittee markup could have made a difference in our work,” he said.

He called for input from privacy advocates, as “there’s still work to do before the legislation is ready for the floor.”

Privacy advocates have raised some concerns over the bill in the past.

In a letter this week, the American Civil Liberties Union — which has not taken a formal position on the bill yet — warned that the privacy protections in the bill, even as amended, are inadequate.

While the bill would require law enforcement agencies to retroactively seek permission for obtaining location information in emergency situations, “the legislation, as drafted, does not create any penalty if the court finds a violation of the law,” the letter said.

Without a defined penalty, including one that allows a defendant to suppress illegally obtained evidence through the bill, “a defendant could be harmed by clearly illegal conduct, but have no remedy — a gross injustice at odds with criminal procedural remedies in other contexts,” the ACLU said.

The group also took issue with the bill’s definition of emergency, which it called “too expansive.”

The bill should limit law enforcement seeking information in an emergency to only the information that is relevant to that emergency, the letter said.

The ACLU pushed lawmakers to include more privacy protections before bringing the bill to the House floor.

“Cell phones are capable of tracking each American’s movements continuously and for an extended duration,” the letter said.

“As such, location information is some of the most revealing information possessed by carriers,” making it “critical” that adequate privacy protections are involved, the ACLU wrote.

The Committee also approved two other tech bills: the Anti-Spoofing Act, which would aim to curb inaccurate caller identification information, and the E-LABEL Act, which would boost the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to replace some physical labeling on electronic devices with on-screen labeling.