Cell phones are synonymous with life in the 21st Century. They do everything — display maps, send email, play games and music. They also do one other thing — track you.
Every seven seconds, your cell phone automatically scans for the nearest cell tower which can pinpoint your location as accurately as within 50 meters. A GPS chip in your phone can reveal your location within a few yards. In just one year, Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with the specific whereabouts of an unknown number of customers more than 8 million times. They required law enforcement to provide neither a warrant nor probable cause to access this information. Sprint even set up a website for law enforcement agents so they could access these records from the comfort of their desks. "The tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement," said Sprint’s “manager of electronic surveillance.” I bet it has.
Law enforcement agents have been using location information to surveil Americans since the 1990’s, but we still have no consistent legal standard for when they can gain access to this information. The government has sought access to records through sealed (secret) court proceedings, and chooses not to appeal decisions that might give higher courts an opportunity to establish a warrant standard for accessing location records.
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing to discuss an update to the Electronic Communication Privacy Act (ECPA), the law that is meant to maintain American’s privacy online. Most Members in attendance agreed that advances in technology demand an update to ECPA. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) acknowledged that ECPA was passed when the only options for location information were road atlases and gas stations. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee, explained that the courts are in “disarray and understandably so” due to the lack of clarity in the current law.
Almost every American carries a cell phone, yet few think about the information these devices are collecting and storing. Whether you are visiting a therapist or liquor store, a church or a gun range, your location is available either in real time or months later. The ACLU is asking Congress to require government officials to obtain a warrant before access is granted to any of those electronic records, just as they have always had to do for similarly sensitive personal information. For Americans to maintain the robust privacy protections they expect offline, Congress must act to update ECPA.
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The statement the ACLU submitted to the hearing can be found here.