Congress Members Reintroduce Legislation to Require Warrants for GPS Tracking

March 23, 2013

Saturday, March 23, 2013, by Ashley McAlarney
Three lawmakers re-introduced legislation on Thursday, March 21 that “require[s] police to get a warrant before using GPS to actively track suspects’ whereabouts.” The Geolocation Privacy Surveillance Act, known as the GPS Act, directs police to obtain a warrant before they can acquire a person’s location history from service providers. The legislation also requires a warrant to place a tracking device on any person’s property, including their vehicles. In addition, the bill includes access and use guidelines for different stakeholders, and even criminal penalties, similar to those for wiretapping, for using GPS tracking to find a person’s location without their knowledge. Similar to current warrant requirements, the bill’s warrant mandate does have an emergency exception, but it also has the added exception for national security situations.

This bill has the potential to further protect citizens’ privacy rights in the digital age in terms of access to their GPS location data by both law enforcement and commercial entities.

The bill was originally proposed in June 2011 by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) as a bipartisan effort to clarify how and when different actors can access and use location data. As geolocation technology grows and becomes a part of an increasing amount of citizen’s daily lives (in our cell phones, for instance), the bill’s proponents claim that “federal laws have failed to keep pace, meaning there are no clear rules governing how law enforcement, commercial entities and private citizens can access, use and sell that data.”
The renewed GPS Act proposal intersects with the Supreme Court case United States v. Jones decided in January 2012. In Jones, the Court held that the Government attachment of a GPS device to the defendant’s car to track his movements constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. This ruling aligns with some of the bill sponsors’ priorities, but “several of the Justices noted that a number of questions remain unresolved by the courts, and suggested that it is up to Congress to establish clear rules.” The bi-partisan group of Congress members reintroduced the bill this week to address this recommendation. The GPS Act has gained approval and support from the American Civil Liberties Union as a move toward “guaranteeing our digital due process rights in 21st century America.”
This bill has the potential to further protect citizens’ privacy rights in the digital age in terms of access to their GPS location data by both law enforcement and commercial entities. A large portion of Americans own phones and devices with geolocation technology, so they would all be affected as well as the government that would have to enforce this new rule. How the GPS Act might be amended in the legislative process if it passes, applied by law enforcement in the field, and interpreted by courts are all questions that will be resolved as this legislation moves forward.