Bills Would Restrict Warrantless Collection of Geolocation Data

    Mar 07, 2017

    House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is pushing two bipartisan bills seeking to restrict law enforcement’s use of technologies capable of tracking users through their cell phones without a warrant.

    Cell-site simulators, known as "stingrays," emulate cellular network towers to collect mobile phone data, and are used by some government agencies to determine geolocation of user devices, according to fcw.com.

    The Cell Location Privacy Act, just reintroduced by Chaffetz, would require all domestic law enforcement to obtain a probable cause warrant before using cell-site simulators, with exceptions for foreign intelligence surveillance and "exigent circumstances."

    Chaffetz, along with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) also reintroduced The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, which would make it illegal to intercept Americans’ geolocation information without their knowledge, or to use or disclose data collected that way, except after obtaining a warrant or in other specified circumstances. It would also create a legal framework that governs the use of geolocation technology by law enforcement and non-government entities.

    At a Cato Institute event last month, Chaffetz said the bills were "crucial to restoring trust" between law enforcement and the public.

    The congressman acknowledged "there are very legitimate uses of this technology," such as missing persons or abduction cases in which a warrant has been acquired, but warned that geolocation technology "is ripe for abuse."

    In December, Chaffetz’s House Oversight Committee released a bipartisan report that revealed the federal government spent about $100 million between fiscal years 2010 and 2014 on cell-site simulators. The Department of Justice purchased the most over this period, spending more than $71 million on 310 cell-site simulators, while the Department of Homeland Security spent more than $24 million on 124 simulators. The Internal Revenue Service also has purchased these devices, the report showed.

    In the past, DOJ has argued a probable cause warrant is not necessary to obtain "historical" geolocation data.

    Meanwhile, at least one state is not waiting on federal lawmakers to determine the issue. A New Mexico Senate Committee recently passed the Electronic Data Privacy Act, which will require police to obtain a warrant before using stingrays and for accessing electronic communications from service providers.


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