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ACLU Heralds Passage of Law Restricting Cell Phone Location Tracking

Posted: July 13, 2016|Category: Criminal Justice Police Practices Privacy

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The ACLU of Rhode Island today celebrated the signing by Governor Gina Raimondo of crucial privacy legislation requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before accessing cell phone location information, except in certain emergency circumstances.

Approximately every seven seconds, a cell phone searches for the nearest tower. This information is recorded by the telecommunications provider and becomes a complete record of the location of any cell phone user at any given time, accurate to within 50 meters even if the phone’s GPS is not activated. Complete location history can then be downloaded for a single user of a device, or, in the case of so-called “tower dumps,” every single individual who passes by a particular cell tower over a designated period of time. Despite the detail of this information, police have been able to obtain it all without a warrant.

The legislation signed today, H 7167 A and S 2403 A, sponsored by Rep. Edith Ajello and Sen. Donna Nesselbush, requires law enforcement obtain a warrant before retrieving this information except in certain circumstances, such as emergencies involving a risk to a person’s life. ACLU of Rhode Island policy associate Hillary Davis called passage of this legislation necessary to limit “perhaps the most comprehensive surveillance of individuals we have faced to date.”

Davis further noted: “Rhode Island’s privacy laws have long been out of touch with leaps in technology, and the increased potential for the misuse of this information against innocent individuals. This long-overdue legislation brings Rhode Island’s privacy laws more in line with 21st century realities. We thank the sponsors for their hard work on this legislation over the years, and the General Assembly and Governor Raimondo for their approval of this legislation.”

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