Lawmakers push bill to limit GPS tracking

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation on Thursday that would require police to obtain a warrant to collect location data from a person's cellphone, tablet, car or other electronic device.

The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act would cover both real-time tracking of people's movements as well as collecting past location records from cellphone service providers.

Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), John Conyers (D-Mich.) and six other lawmakers introduced the bill in the House. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced companion legislation in the Senate.

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In addition to the warrant requirement, the bill would make it a crime to use an electronic device to surreptitiously track a person's location. The provision is aimed at preventing a jealous boyfriend from installing a stalking app on his girlfriend's phone, for example. Companies would also need their user's permission to collect location data or share it with third parties under the bill.

“New technologies are making it increasingly easy to track and log the location of individuals. We need to make sure laws are keeping up with technology to protect our privacy,” 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 probable cause warrant from a judge.”

Wyden agreed that privacy laws have not kept pace with new technologies.

“The GPS Act provides law enforcement with a clear mandate for when to obtain a warrant for the geolocation information of an American," Wyden said. "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. Finally, it protects the privacy and civil liberty of any American using a GPS-enabled device.”

The bill includes an exception to the warrant requirement for emergencies or national security.

The bill is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Computer and Communications Industry Association.

The Supreme Court ruled last year in United States v. Jones that planting a GPS device on a suspect's car qualifies as a "search" under the Fourth Amendment. But how that decision applies to cellphones and the extent of the requirements it imposes on police remain unclear.

A federal appeals court ruled last August that, despite the Supreme Court's decision, police do not need a warrant to track the location of a suspect's phone. The court concluded that planting a GPS device is more of an invasion of privacy than collecting a phone's location data from the provider.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) has also introduced legislation that would require police to obtain a warrant before accessing mobile location data or private online communications like emails.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is pushing his own bill that would require companies to get a customer's consent before collecting or sharing mobile location data.

—Updated at 2:11 p.m.

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