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Hearing held on bill to put curbs on the spy in your pocket

May 21, 2012|By Michelle Maltais
  • A recent study from the ACLU found a high number of law enforcement agencies track cellphone movement.
A recent study from the ACLU found a high number of law enforcement agencies… (Michelle Maltais / Los Angeles…)

You may already suspect it, but yes, your cellphone is essentially stalking you. But don't chuck it out your car window quite yet. For the most part, your phone is benign, benevolent and incredibly useful. However, the information it collects about you is not in your control, and that data may be more precise about your comings and goings than you think.

Satellite-dependent GPS, or global positioning system, technology isn't the only feature in the phone that can precisely track your movements. In testimony last week to a House subcommittee on federal legislation called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (or GPS), a Pennsylvania professor said that wireless location techniques in today's cellphones that help maintain reception are getting a whole lot better.

" 'Network-based' location techniques can give the position of virtually every handset active in the network at any time, regardless of whether the mobile devices are equipped with GPS chips and without the explicit knowledge or active cooperation of phone users," wrote Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, in testimony to the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security.

These assertions come as part of a day of testimony before the committee currently studying HR 2168, aptly referred to as the GPS Act, which was proposed last summer with bipartisan support.

The bill would require federal, state, and municipal authorities to show probable cause and get a warrant from a judge before conducting GPS-enabled surveillance or obtaining tracking data about individuals from wireless companies.

With the evolution of cellphones from an expensive curiosity reserved for the rich to a ubiquitous tool woven into the fabric of today's communications, they have become a powerful little black box in everyone's purse or pocket. 

Some of the testimony, however, made distinctions between tracking of cellphone locations without a warrant and tracking GPS devices on cars without a warrant, which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled was a violation of the 4th Amendment protection against search and seizure in January.

“Currently with a court order [as opposed to a warrant], law enforcement may request the possible location of a particular device from a communications company from their cell tower or cell site information, which enables law enforcement to potentially infer a general area where a particular call originated, not necessarily a precise location,” John Ramsey, vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Assn., said at the hearing, according to Forbes. “Cell site information only gives an approximate location, versus a precise or exact location like GPS devices.”

Not so, said the professor. 

"Under some circumstances, the latest generation of this technology permits the network to calculate users' locations with a precision that approaches that of GPS," Blaze wrote. And it may have some notable advantages over GPS for law enforcement surveillance.

"New and emerging cell location techniques can work indoors and in places not typically accessible to GPS receivers," he wrote.

While the Supreme Court justices held in United States v. Jones that law enforcement was essentially trespassing on private property by installing a device to track movements, their ruling was narrowly focused. They didn't touch on tracking using cellphones.

The GPS Act extends the ban on using GPS devices on cars without a warrant to all types of electronic tracking and does not distinguish between geolocation techniques.

A recent review of law-enforcement practices by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that it's not uncommon for cellphones to be virtually tailed using either the phone's own GPS or cellular triangulation without obtaining a warrant.

Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, also testified before the committee: "There have always been facets of American life that have been uniquely safeguarded from the intrusive interference and observation of government. Geolocation surveillance threatens to make even those aspects of life an open book to government."

"Passing the GPS Act would fulfill Congress' duty to ensure that the safeguards provided by the Fourth  Amendment to the Constitution are respected, and it would allow Americans to preserve the privacy they have traditionally experienced, even as technology advances," she said, according to a written transcript of her remarks.

Recently, a similar bill in California, the California Location Privacy Bill, moved from committee for consideration by the full state Senate -- but minus a portion requiring wireless providers to produce a detailed report on the information they provide to government agencies.

The Senate version of the federal GPS Act (S. 1212) is awaiting consideration before the Senate Judiciary Committee as the House version makes its way through the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.


Police tracking of cellphones raises concerns

California Location Privacy bill moves to full Senate vote

Supreme Court says police need warrant for GPS tracking

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