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Chaffetz pushes bill to set legal standards for GPS tracking

by Eric S. Peterson
Posted // 2011-06-17 -

In a bipartisan bill, Rep. Jason Chaffetz seeks to catch the law up with GPS-tracking technology in mobile devices and in secret tracking devices used by law enforcement.

Smartphones and other mobile devices develop so quickly and intelligently that several lawmakers on Capitol Hill worry these advances have outsmarted federal law or, at least, outpaced it.

That’s why Rep. Chaffetz and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are pushing their Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act to establish a comprehensive framework for how companies and law enforcement can use global-positioning-satellite or GPS technology that is now common in most cell phone devices.

“People should have a reasonable expectation of privacy,” Chaffetz says. “We don’t want people to be afraid of their phones. GPS technology is amazing but it's becoming so pervasive. It can do a lot of good, but we got to make sure people aren’t manipulating the technology and spying on other people.”

The bill would give greater protections to consumers by prohibiting commercial-service providers from sharing customer’s locations to third parties without the customer’s consent.

Since the bill was introduced Wednesday, it’s attracted two new significant co-sponsors, with Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, the House Judiciary subcommittee chair and Rep. Peter Welch, D-VT, the deputy whip for the House Democrats.

Perhaps the most critical area of geo-location law the bill seeks to clarify is when and how Big Brother can check in on citizen’s location through their phones and other devices.

In a memo prepared by the Congressional Research Services to Senate Intelligence Services in 2010, court decisions about the government’s use of geo-location tracking have been varied, with most jurisdictions arguing the government needs to show probable cause for such tracking efforts, while “other jurisdictions have held that a mere showing of reasonable and articulable facts is sufficient.”

Chaffetz’s bill, however, would require probable cause for law-enforcement tracking through geo-location technology in mobile devices as well as tracking devices covertly planted on individuals by law-enforcement entities. “[Law enforcement] has these hockey-puck like things they just stick to people’s cars and they’ve gotta have probable cause,” Chaffetz says.

It’s the kind of federal law that would make some in Utah happy, like “Cannabis Activist” Dustin Kay, a marijuana-legalization advocate City Weekly reported on who, in 2009, faced jail time for possession of 3 ounces of pot, and alleges an Ogden narcotics agent showed him a tracking device he had placed on his car to track his movements. The device was not mentioned in Kay’s arrest warrant.

Chaffetz bill carves out a number of exceptions including emergency situations, and exceptions for mobile technology that uses geo-location technology to assist law enforcement in finding the device if stolen. It also creates criminal penalties for using geo-location technology in stalking situations, similar to offenses for illegal wiretaps.

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