Require Search Warrants for Phone Tracking, Congressman Proposes

Published April 27, 2017

A U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee is considering the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act), a bill to reform and standardize government law enforcement agencies’ surveillance of individuals’ cell phones and digital devices.

The bill was referred to the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations in March, where it awaits consideration. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced a companion bill in the U.S. Senate in February.

The GPS Act would create a uniform standard for government agencies’ access to this data, requiring state and federal law enforcement agencies to obtain a judge’s approval before seeking geolocation data from a private company such as an internet service or mobile phone provider.

Geolocation data is generated by devices such as mobile phones and laptop computers when connecting to the internet or phone networks. This data can be used remotely to determine and track individuals’ geographic location and movements.

Reinforcing Constitutional Rights

Marc Blitz, a professor at Oklahoma City University’s School of Law, says the bill creates consistent protections for individuals’ constitutional rights.

“The GPS Act would require the government to get a warrant of probable cause to get this information,” Blitz said. “One way to think about what the GPS Act is trying to do is that it is suggesting to give statutory protection for the Fourth Amendment. I think this bill is saying that even if the Fourth Amendment doesn’t protect us, statutes will.”

Establishing a Consistent Standard

Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says he favors the GPS Act.

“This is a good idea because it will provide uniformity for geolocation practices in law enforcement,” Falcon said. “This bill will also require judicial review at all times.”

Falcon says different government agencies have varying policies on surveillance, creating confusion and uncertainty for individuals and government law enforcement agents alike.

“Right now, [regarding] the ability to track someone wirelessly on their phone, … there is internal guidance with the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice that requires warrants,” Falcon said. “That is not the case for other federal agencies or state governments. There are times when the police think they need a warrant and there are times when they think that they don’t, so having a law on the books would be a win for the Fourth Amendment.”