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Privacy Advocates Urge Lawmakers: Close Smart-Phone Loophole

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Friday, January 11, 2013   

AUSTIN, Texas – Civil liberties groups and privacy advocates are urging state legislators to require law-enforcement officials to seek judicial approval before accessing an individual's location tracking information, such as GPS data collected by cell-phone companies.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it's unconstitutional to place tracking devices on someone's vehicle without first obtaining a warrant, but lower courts are divided on whether it's okay to simply grab the GPS data routinely transmitted by smart phones.

Matt Simpson, a policy strategist with ACLU of Texas, says it shouldn't matter how location information is gathered.

"These are the kinds of searches that, if done in person, would require a judge to sign off on it. But, for some reason, we haven't yet regulated in Texas how that information is used when it's collected, basically, electronically."

Simpson says location tracking has become an easy way for many law enforcement officials to conduct fishing expeditions that rarely result in prosecutions. He adds that reams of personal information – from where people shop, work and spend their free time – are often shared by multiple agencies.

Besides the privacy concerns, Simpson is worried that people could be profiled, or targeted for all the wrong reasons.

"People could be investigated for their religion. People could be investigated for First Amendment protected activity like free speech and free association. So, there are some real civil liberties issues in terms of who would be investigated if we don't have a warrant process where a judge steps in."

The ACLU is among several groups that will be meeting with lawmakers next week, seeking sponsors for legislation that would make tracking warrants mandatory statewide, and requires law enforcement agencies to publicly report how frequently they rely on cell-phone company data. Exceptions would be made for emergency situations, such as when officials are trying to locate a missing child.





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