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Should Law Enforcement Use Cell Phone Data to Track Citizens?

Legislation mulled that would limit law enforcement’s ability to use cell phone data for tracking purposes.

by / March 25, 2011

Prompted by privacy concerns, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is circulating draft legislation that would require law enforcement officials to obtain warrants before using data collected from mobile devices for tracking purposes.

If formally proposed as it’s now written, the bill would severely curtail the ability of police to use geolocation information acquired by wireless carriers. Such data is utilized frequently to pinpoint the whereabouts of criminals through items such as cell phones, global positioning systems and computers.

With technology advances outpacing existing law, individuals and telecommunication companies are wary about the legalities of sharing personal location data. But as Paul Wormeli, executive director emeritus at the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, explained Friday, March 25, Wyden’s bill could also have a chilling effect on officers worried about losing their jobs.

“The draft of the legislation starts from the premise that it is illegal to use any GPS tracking devices with certain exceptions, but those exceptions are not well thought through,” Wormeli said. “It doesn’t cover all the circumstances where an exception would be warranted.”

The law includes provisions that would allow usage of mobile data in the case of emergencies, national security concerns and other critical situations. But officials are concerned that making officers acquire a warrant to use geolocation information could cost lives.

“Law enforcement will say, ‘I don’t have time to get a warrant, so I guess we can’t do that,’” Wormeli said. “That puts the life of [a] victim in danger. There are consequences.”

Wormeli conceded that current law could be revised for clarity and strengthened regarding commercial use of location data. But he was steadfast that Wyden’s bill unduly restricts police from ensuring the public’s security.

“When it comes to public safety, we have a history in this country allowing the law enforcement agencies … to use whatever tools they need as long as they can show that it is a reasonable application of the tool,” Wormeli said. “I much rather see legislation that started from that whole notion of permission.”

At press time, Wyden’s office had not returned a call to Government Technology seeking comment.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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