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Your Privacy Rights, Before Congress Now and the Supreme Court in November

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September 14, 2011

In June, we told you the Supreme Court agreed to hear United States v. Jones, a case that will determine if the government may plant GPS devices on vehicles to track people without a warrant. The government has appealed the D.C. appellate court’s August 2010 decision that such 24-7 surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment. The argument is scheduled for November 8.

On Monday, Jeffrey Rosen wrote in the New York Times how the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones is likely to have a significant impact on Americans’ ability to protect their anonymity.

But while Rosen properly identifies online and video surveillance and facial recognition technology as new and serious threats to our privacy, the privacy rights of 91 percent of Americans who carry cell phones are also very much in jeopardy. After all, your cell phone can give the government or law enforcement the same kind of location information that was gleaned from the GPS device in question in the Jones case; the location information the D.C. Circuit said was protected by the Constitution.

The ACLU wants to know exactly how location tracking information is currently used in law enforcement investigations, so we launched a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign. ACLU affiliates in 31 states across the country filed more than 375 public information act requests with local law enforcement agencies seeking info about when, why and how they are using cell phone location data to track Americans.

While we put together a picture of how this information is used, the law governing warrantless location tracking clearly needs to be updated and overhauled. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) have proposed a solution: they’ve introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act in the Senate and House, respectively, which requires law enforcement to get a warrant based on probable cause before accessing location information.

These bills need cosponsors, so contact your members of Congress! We don’t have to wait for the Supreme Court to deliver its decision in Jones next year when we can act now.

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