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Bill proposed to regulate collection, use of GPS tracking data

Jaikumar Vijayan, Computerworld | June 15, 2011
Two lawmakers today proposed a bipartisan measure that would regulate how law enforcement agencies and companies can access and use geo-location data gathered from cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices.

Two lawmakers today proposed a bipartisan measure that would regulate how law enforcement agencies and companies can access and use geo-location data gathered from cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices.

The Geolocation and Privacy Surveillance (GPS) Act was drafted by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). It is the first bipartisan effort to create a framework for when and how geolocation data can be used.

"This [bill] updates an area of the law that has simply not kept up with the times," Wyden said in a conference call with reporters this afternoon.

Tens of millions of Americans already have relationships with companies that use tracking technologies to log location data, Wyden said. But federal laws have failed to keep up, resulting in a lack of rules governing the use of the data.

"Here's the bottom line -- new tools require new laws," he said. "The law, in effect, is playing catch up with the technological revolution."

The GPS Act is modeled from existing wiretapping laws and imposes penalties when geolocation data is gathered and used without the proper authority or purpose. It would establish standards and procedures that law enforcement would need to meet to use GPS data in court. In addition, the GPS Act would establish criminal penalties for those using tracking devices surreptitiously.

Under the bill, law enforcement authorities would be required to show probable cause and obtain a warrant to access an person's geolocation data except in emergencies and other narrow circumstances. It would prohibit commercial service providers from sharing location data with others without the explicit consent of consumers.

The GPS Act would apply to both real-time tracking as well as to tracking using historical data. It covers all data gathered by law enforcement from mobile devices as well as via the surreptitious use of GPS tracking devices on vehicles.

The proposed legislation is sure to win the support of civil rights and privacy groups who have been calling for stricter controls over the collection and use of geolocation data.

In recent years, several courts have heard complaints involving the covert collection of tracking data by law enforcement officials. The outcomes in those cases have been decidedly mixed, reflecting both a lack of case law and legal uncertainty about the issue.

In some cases, courts have held that the government needs to obtain warrants based on probable cause to collect and use location data. In others, courts have ruled that law enforcement authorities need no warrant.

 

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