New GPS Tracking Bills Aim to Clarify Digital Surveillance and Privacy Issues

capitalbuildingIf you’re still struggling with the ambiguities in GPS tracking and digital surveillance law after last year’s Supreme Court decision in  U.S. v. Jones, you may be getting some clarity soon. Two bills recently introduced in Congress attempt to sort through the many privacy issues the Court failed to address.    

In January 2012, the Supreme Court voted unanimously to curb warrantless GPS tracking by police, a move that was lauded by the ACLU and other civil liberties groups.

 “We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.

The problem with last year’s decision, according to current lawmakers, is that it left open a number of loopholes, most notably law enforcement agents’ ability to gain access to private citizens’ cell phone records and GPS locations directly from service providers without a warrant. This so-called privacy invasion has been exploited at exponential rates, racking up over 1.3 million requests in 2011 alone. Police are also still legally allowed to set up “stingrays”: fake cell phone towers that ping phone signals, allowing them to track suspects, again, without the need for a warrant.

Introduced in the House by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and in the Senate by lawmakers Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act) and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act, respectively, hope to close those loopholes.

“GPS technology has evolved into a useful commercial and law enforcement tool but the rules for the use of that tool have not evolved along with it,” Wyden said in a statement. “The GPS Act provides law enforcement with a clear mandate for when to obtain a warrant for the geolocation information of an American. 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.”

Supported by the ACLU and other civil libertarians, the Act has faced opposition from the Obama Administration, whose official position is that national security should supercede the necessity for a warrant. The proposed legislation, it should be noted, features exclusions in extreme circumstances such as combating terrorism or border security issues.

While much of the legislation is intended to rein in government privacy invasion, it also looks to end surreptitious civilian tracking by creating criminal penalties for undisclosed location monitoring. Child GPS tracking would still be deemed legal, however.

Bipartisan support makes the proposed legislation look great on paper, but  the prognosis for the measure doesn’t look as sunny; it currently sits at about a 25% chance of making it past committee on govtrack.us. We’ll keep you posted right here on any developments as the bills progress.

About the author  ⁄ Erik Helin

Erik is the chief Copywriter with BrickHouse Security. Hailing from the Midwest (Wisconsin), Erik moved to NYC in 2010, securing a job at BrickHouse shortly thereafter. Outside of work he writes about music, does freelance advertising work, and wastes his life on the internet. Aside from no-brainers like cheese and beer, Erik enjoys music, travel, TV, his cat, and Brooklyn.