Wyden Pushes for Warrants for Govt. Geolocation Tracking

As advertised, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), joined by new co-sponsor Sen. Ron Kirk (R-Ill.), Tuesday (Oct. 18) renewed his push for a bill introduced in both the House and Senate -- the Geolocation Privacy Surveillance, or "GPS," Act -- that would make the government get a court's permission before using geolocation from their smartphone or other electronics communications device to track someone.

It would also prevent service providers from sharing geolocation information with third parties without affirmative customer consent.  

Wyden was using the hook of the 25th anniversary of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), making the point that it needed to be updated since back in 1986, cell phones were bricks, the 'net was in swaddling clothes and tablets and GPS devices did not exist.

The bill, which was first introduced by Wyden and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) back in June, requires the government to go to a court, show probable cause and get a search warrant before using that info. It would also require a company that wants to share geolocation info to get affirmative consent.

Wyden has said law enforcement would benefit from clear rules, though he conceded there would be a debate with some in law enforcement who will want as much info as they can get as quickly as they can.

The Justice Department has argued that law enforcement wants easier access to that data, not less, in order to track down criminals, with Deputy Attorney General Jason Weinstein of the Justice Department's criminal division pointing out in a Hill hearing earlier this year that while there were currently no restrictions on sharing online data with commercial third parties, there were plenty on sharing with the government.

The bill would level the playing field by boosting commercial restrictions rather than giving the government easier access.

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.

Those include Google's admission it was collecting user data as part of its mapping initiative, and Apple's admission that geolocation information being collected by iPhones was being stored too long and not sufficiently secured. Both companies have said the issues are being resolved, but Capitol Hill has drawn a bead on geolocation, with hearings in the Senate and legislation in the hopper or already on the table, including the Wyden initiative and a kids privacy bill that would prevent geolocation tracking of kids. The Federal Trade Commission has also proposed clarifying the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) to prevent such tracking without parental consent.

Some legislators have countered that there could be upsides to locating their children, say, when they are missing. Others counter that they could go missing because predators get access to geolocation information, suggesting the issue is an important one without an easy answer.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.