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Geolocation Info Protection Bills Introduced

Bipartisan bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that would require the government to get a warrant before obtaining geolocation data from telecommunications companies and prevent geolocation service providers from sharing that info with third parties without their consent.

The Justice Department has argued that law enforcement wants greater access to that data in order to track down criminals, with Deputy Attorney General Jason Weinstein of the Justice Department's criminal division pointing out that while there were no restrictions on sharing online data with commercial third parties, there were plenty on sharing with the government.

In introducing the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act Wednesday, by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) say they are looking to establish some "legal clarity" on the use of that information for all concerned, including government, private companies, and consumers. They were sensitive to the government's concerns, saying in announcing the bill that "it is even unclear if law enforcement has the tools to arrest a stalker caught using technology to follow another person or obtain that person's geolocation information. "

Key provisions of the bill would:

Clarify legal procedures and protections for obtaining and sharing geolocation data.

Require the government to show probable cause and get a warrant for such data, with carve-outs for national security and emergencies, theft or fraud.

Applies to information from ISPs as well as from government surveillance devices.

Applies to real-time tracking as well as historical records. Translation, according to the legislators: "Real-time tracking: 'Where is John Smith right now?' Acquisition of records of past movements: 'Where did John Smith go on St. Patrick's Day?'"

Creates criminal penalties for tracking similar to wiretap laws. For example, hacking a GPS device to track someone would be considered comparable to an illegal wiretap for the same purposes.

Prohibit commercial service providers from sharing geolocation information with third parties without customer consent.

Congress has been focused on data privacy and security issues driven by various revelations about how data was being collected and shared, and failures to properly secure it.

Apple came under fire for its location-based data collection policies. It has said some of that concern was misplaced, but also took steps to address others. The American Civil Liberties Union praised the legislations' introduction.

"Whether they realize it or not, Americans are carrying tracking devices with them wherever they go. Whether they visit a therapist, liquor store, church or gun range, Americans' activities are often available to law enforcement in real-time or even months after the fact," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "Tracking our locations and movements without warrants or probable cause is a massive privacy violation. With unclear standards to regulate the collection of this information, our Fourth Amendment rights are left largely unprotected. This bill is a welcome step toward guarding some of our most private information and we hope both the House and Senate make its passage a priority."