Lawmakers to cops: Don’t mess with Texas

Lone Star legislators have introduced the toughest location privacy laws yet. Cops want to know where you've been? They'd better have a warrant.

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Image credit: flickr/shirleynedry

It appears folks deep in the heart of Texas really don’t trust the government. At the very least, they don’t have a lot of faith in what Johnny Law is likely to do with their location data – and it’s something the rest of us outside the Republic of T. may all eventually benefit from.

According to a report by Ars Technica’s Cyrus Farivar, legislators in Austin have proposed two mobile privacy bills that are stricter than any yet seen by any other US governmental entity – even tougher than the one California Governor Jerry Moonbeam Brown vetoed last year. Per Ars:

If passed, the new bills would establish a well-defined, probable-cause-driven warrant requirement for all location information. That's not just data from GPS, but potentially pen register, tap and trace, and tower location data as well. Such data would be disclosed to law enforcement "if there is probable cause to believe the records disclosing location information will provide evidence in a criminal investigation."

In most situations, though, the cops can obtain location data via subpoena or even just requesting it from carriers – a much lower barrier than obtaining a warrant. That’s what makes these proposed laws tougher.

The laws would also require mobile carriers to issue regular reports about the number and type of tracking requests they receive each year. Last year, in response to questions posed by Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass), the telecom companies revealed they had received at least 1.3 million requests for subscriber data from law enforcement in 2011. Technically, the carriers weren’t compelled to provide this information, they did it voluntarily. The Texas law would make that a legal requirement. If the carriers have to do this kind of disclosure in Texas – and if a few other states follow suit – they are much more likely to do it on a national basis. And the US Congress might be persuaded to adopt stricter privacy laws on a federal level (maybe).

A little more than a year ago, the US Supreme Court declared that placing GPS devices on cars without a warrant is unconstitutional, that’s mostly because it represented a trespass on private property – not because it violated the alleged criminal’s privacy. When it comes to cell phones and location, though, most courts have been less friendly to private citizens who’d like to stay private.

In August, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit declared, rather stunningly, that the location of a car on a public road should be considered no more private than the color of one’s car. I am still scratching my head over that one. The idea there was that if you know a device can be tracked, you have lowered expectations of privacy.

My response to that is, my expectation of privacy does not and should not depend on how much better and cheaper technology has gotten. A spy satellite can record my license plate number, too, but that doesn’t mean the NSA has the right to follow my movements just because they can.

So the struggle for location privacy is an uphill battle. But it’s an important one. And who knows? Maybe Texas will lead the way.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blogeSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld onTwitter and Facebook.

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