June 1, 2012 | By Hanni Fakhoury

CA Location Privacy Bill Advances, Similar DC Bill Finally Gets a Hearing

We're happy to report that the California Location Privacy Act we're sponsoring with the ACLU of Northern California passed the California Senate on a bipartisan vote of 30 to 6, and is now headed on to the California Assembly.

SB 1434 protects the privacy of Californians by requiring law enforcement to get a search warrant before obtaining location information from any electronic device. The bill is an attempt to codify the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Jones, which ruled that the warrantless installation of a GPS device on a car was an unlawful "search" under the Fourth Amendment. 

We're also glad to see little law enforcement opposition to what would be a good bill for them too. As the ACLU revealed in its coordinated FOIA request concerning cell phone tracking by local law enforcement agencies, different agencies throughout the country are using different standards to get location information. Requiring a search warrant creates an easy-to-remember rule for cops to follow: no warrant, no location information. And a search warrant protects privacy by ensuring the police can't get access to this data without convincing a judge that there is probable cause to believe the info will lead to evidence of a crime. 

Although the wireless industry's lobbying resulted in SB 1434 losing its reporting requirements -- a crucial part of the bill that would promote transparency -- we're happy to see members of Congress stepping up where the California legislature fell short. Both Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) (PDF) and Senator Al Franken (D-MN) (PDF) have demanded that the biggest wireless companies release information about the number of law enforcement requests they've received for location data, and how the companies comply with these requests.

Also in D.C., the GPS Act -- introduced more than a year ago -- finally got a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on May 17. Sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the GPS Act would also require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant in order to obtain location tracking information. The hearing featured testimony from Catherine Crump (PDF) of the ACLU and University of Pennsylvania computer science professor Matt Blaze (PDF), who explained that the need for search warrants is becoming greater as technology has made cell phone location tracking almost as precise as GPS based surveillance. 

All this legislative action in both California and D.C. makes us optimistic that Justice Alito's comments in his Jones concurrence that "in circumstances involving dramatic technological change, the best solution to privacy concerns may be legislative" may soon bear fruit.

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