Six Lines

Location Privacy

Posted by Aaron Massey on 02 Feb 2011.

For years, law enforcement officials in the United States have been able to access some kinds of location data without a search warrant. It appears that Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) are creating legislation that may change that situation:

The forthcoming legislation […] will apply to “all acquisitions of geolocation information,” including GPS tracking devices that police are generally allowed to place on cars without warrants under current law.

It will address both law enforcement and intelligence investigations, including saying that Americans who are overseas continue to enjoy the same location-privacy rights, a nod to the debate a few years ago over rewriting federal wiretapping law. It will also extend the same privacy protections to both “real-time monitoring and acquisition of past movements.”

I admit that I’d probably be a little bit surprised if this eventually becomes law. The argument in favor of it falls into a lot of soundbite problems. On one hand, there’s the concrete benefit of law enforcement being able to access location data of suspects without the paperwork of a warrant. On the other hand, there’s the protection of this somewhat nebulous concept of ‘privacy.’ This mischaracterization is not at all uncommon for privacy concerns, but with more and more cell phones including GPS tracking, it is time to revisit the issue of whether location data should require a search warrant.