US lawmakers push to limit gov't mobile tracking

Senators call for Congress to pass a law requiring warrants to track mobile phone users

The U.S. Congress needs to pass legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to get permission from a judge before tracking suspects through their mobile phones, instead of the now-common practice of tracking a mobile subscriber's location after a prosecutor-issued subpoena, two U.S. lawmakers said Tuesday.

Senators Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, joined several advocacy groups from across the political spectrum to push for the passage of the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, introduced back in June. The legislation would require U.S. law enforcement agencies, in most cases, to get court-ordered warrants to track suspects through GPS information on smartphones and other mobile devices.

It's time to clear up confusion about mobile phone tracking by law enforcement agencies and update parts of the 25-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the law that sets the rules for law enforcement access to U.S. residents' digital data, Wyden said.

"The laws that govern the new media are essentially as old as the staffers who Senator Kirk and I hire to handle new media," Wyden said. "This is an area, it seems to me, where the new tools call for some new, common-sense rules."

The two senators used the anniversary of ECPA as a hook to push for passage of the GPS Act and to host a retro tech fair featuring products marketed in 1986. Joining Wyden and Kirk were the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), the American Civil Liberties Union, the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, among other groups.

CDT and other members of the Digital Due Process Coalition have been pushing for changes to ECPA since early in 2010, and the GPS Act would address one of four major concerns identified by the digital rights group. Other legislation in Congress would address other concerns about ECPA, including the privacy of data stored in the cloud.

"Americans deserve a privacy upgrade," Jim Dempsey, CDT's vice president for public policy, said during Tuesday's press conference. "Most Americans would be astonished to learn that government agents can track them, 24/7, without getting a warrant from a judge."

During recent hearings, representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice have questioned the need for changes to ECPA. Changes in ECPA would make it more difficult for the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to protect the U.S. public and maintain national security, Valerie Caproni, general counsel of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in May.

Kirk, a new sponsor of the GPS Act, said the bill is a good first step toward protecting the privacy of U.S. residents, although more sweeping changes to ECPA may be needed.

"Government needs restrictions," added Fred Smith Jr., president and founder of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags U.S. Federal Bureau of InvestigationAmericans for Tax ReformtelecommunicationValerie CaproniJim DempseyCompetitive Enterprise InstitutemobilelegislationprivacyElectronic Frontier FoundationAmerican Civil Liberties Union4g3gRon WydensecurityFred Smith Jr.Center for Democracy and TechnologygovernmentU.S. Department of JusticeU.S. SenateMark Kirk

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Grant Gross

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