Protecting Fourth Amendment Wireless Rights

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) recently joined forces to introduce a critically important bill that would require law enforcement agencies to acquire a warrant to track the location of individual citizens through their wireless or GPS devices.

The legislation, entitled the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act (or GPS Act), would provide 4th Amendment protections to wireless devices by specifying in greater detail the legal procedures to track or access geolocation data.  Current law under the Electronic Privacy Communications Act (and Stored Communications Act) was created in 1986, long before the prevalent consumer use of cell phones and positioning satellites. As technology has advanced, the law has failed to keep up, resulting in vague enforcement authority, conflicting court cases, and a lack of knowledge by consumers as to when the government can track their location through their wireless device. The Wyden-Chaffetz bill seeks to remedy this by clearly defining the instances in which the government can attain such data.

Primarily, the GPS Act would require that government agencies demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant before being allowed access to an individual’s geolocation information. It also defines exceptions for requiring a warrant, including in national emergencies (mirroring existing wiretapping law), the monitoring of children by their parents, and emergency calling systems (e.g., 9-1-1).

The GPS Act is vitally important not only to protect 4th Amendment rights, but also to provide clear, consistent, and understandable standards for law enforcement and wireless carriers.  Without it, the government will maintain its vague and near limitless authority over the wireless data of American citizens.  It's introduction follows a similar bill introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that expands ECPA law to cover online cloud computing services, where personal data is stored on systems owned by third parties.

For more background information, check out this Congressional Research Service report on current law and the Digital Due Process coalition.