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Maine may be first state to require a warrant for cell-phone tracking

Jaikumar Vijayan | June 4, 2013
Bill sought by privacy groups passes legislature, headed for state Senate, governor's signature

Maine is one step closer to becoming the first state in the nation with a law that would require police to obtain a court-issued search warrant in order to obtain a person's cell-phone location data.

The State Legislature, by a vote of 113-28, passed the bill ( L.D. 415 ) last week. The bill next goes for a vote in the State Senate and then on to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature.

If approved, L.D 415, sponsored by Maine Senate Minority Leader Roger Katz, (R-Augusta), would be the first bill in the country to impose a warrant requirement for tracking cell phones and other mobile devices. Under the statute, law enforcement agencies would need to obtain a warrant except in life or death situations, other emergencies or cases of threats to national security.

The law would also require state law enforcement officials to notify individuals within three days, if their location information was tracked. Police can delay notification for up to 90 days if they can show a judge that early notification could have a negative effect on an investigation.

In addition, under the law, the state would be required to publish a publicly available annual report providing details on the number of warrant applications that were received, approved and denied by courts in the state.

Privacy and civil liberties groups have advocated for similar measures at the national level for several years.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, lawmakers and even several courts have called for changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 that would make it harder for law enforcement to access cell-phone location data without a warrant.

The groups have expressed concern in the past over how an individual's cell phone or other GPS-enabled mobile device can allow police to track their movements with great precision over extended periods of time. They have also expressed concern over the types of information that police can collect from mobile phones and cell site location data without a warrant.

In most cases, police have been able to get access to such data without a warrant because the ECPA is unclear on the standards governing access to mobile location data. Law enforcement agencies have argued that users can have little expectation of privacy in cell location data because it is collected and stored by a third-party service provider.

In a landmark ruling related to warrantless GPS-tracking earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court expressed concern over the extensive and privacy-invasive surveillance enabled by modern GPS-enabled cell phones and other mobile devices. Such concerns have been exacerbated by reports about the widespread used of warrantless cell-phone location tracking by police departments around the country.


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