Missouri’s state legislature took steps last Thursday to ban the use of cellphone tracking data in court absent a warrant, the latest state-level push to bring privacy laws in line with rapidly changing technology.
The bill passed in Missouri’s House of Representatives last week seeks to officially prevent law enforcement and other government entities from gathering the location information that the majority of cellphones and many other handheld devices in the country now produce without the permission of a court official. Passed by a vote of 134–3, the bill — HB 1338 — explicitly states that “a government entity shall not obtain the location information of an electronic device without a search warrant issued by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Should the proposed law be breached, the location data gathered would “not admissible in a civil, criminal, or administrative proceeding,” rendering it useless to police. What’s more, the bill even says that location data gathered without a warrant “shall not be used in an affidavit of probable cause in an effort to obtain a search warrant.” In theory, this means that the police would be barred from obtaining a search warrant of your apartment if they managed to learn you were at the scene of a crime from your cellphone’s location data and they hadn’t gotten a warrant to search your phone first.
Several exemptions are carved out where the police can still gather that information without a court’s approval. The scope of most are fairly limited: if the device is reported as stolen; if the owner gives express permission; or if the owner has put in a call to 911 or other emergency services. It does, however, still leave open the potential fo location tracking if “a possible life-threatening situation exists” — a distinction the bill does not elaborate upon.
The bill’s passage in the House means it will move on to the Senate, where it will have to be debated and voted upon before it can reach the desk of Gov. Jay Nixon (D). Two other bills currently under discussion in the Missouri legislature deal more with survellience concerns, particularly those that have emerged in the aftermath of revelations relating to the National Security Agency’s use of domestic communications networks to track potential terrorists. These bills go much further than HB1338, with one calling for removal of Missouri’s support for the NSA so long as their surveillance programs remain in place — a call mirrored in other states that could potentially have much further-reaching implications than supporters predict.
Missouri is just one of several states working to change the way that government agencies can gather location-tracking data from cell phones. Two states’ supreme courts — Massachusetts and New Jersey — have recently ruled that police have to obtain warrants before utilizing location information. Others like Maryland and Wisconsin currently have legislation pending along the same lines as Missouri’s.
The ability of law enforcement to track civilians’ locations without a warrant has become a major concern for privacy advocates in recent years. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2011 sent out a call to hundreds of local law enforcement agencies, gathering information about how they use cellphone’s location data. The result, they said, shows that though “cell phone tracking is routine, few agencies consistently obtain warrants. Importantly, however, some agencies do obtain warrants, showing that law enforcement agencies can protect Americans’ privacy while also meeting law enforcement needs.”