Rhode Island Poised to Widely Share Private Cell Phone Info With Government

Posted: Jun, 07, 2013

As outrage mounts over the disclosure that the federal government obtained millions of phone call information records from Verizon as a routine matter, the Rhode Island General Assembly is poised to pass a bill that would specifically allow both federal and state officials to similarly obtain the location tracking information of any cell phone subscriber for any reason and at any time.

The authorization to do so is contained in an otherwise non-controversial bill known as the “Kelsey Smith Act,” which is designed to help police more quickly locate individuals who are missing or are being kidnapped.

To do that, the bill provides for the release of cell phone tracking information to police upon request in certain emergency situations. But a separate section of the bill goes further to broadly provide that: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, nothing in this section prohibits a wireless telecommunications carrier from establishing protocols by which the carrier could voluntarily disclose device location information.” In other words, the voluntary disclosure of tracking information is not limited to the emergencies the bill separately addresses.

The geographic location of cell phones is transmitted whenever they are turned on. In addition to providing “real time” location of a person, tracking records can provide historic information of their travels, which phone companies often retain for at least a year. This can reveal strikingly personal information. As a federal judge recently wrote, a person’s location data might reveal “whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown said today: “The goal of the Kelsey Smith bill is a laudable one, but this week’s revelations about the secret tracking of phone calls by the federal government should give us pause. It is one thing for phone companies and police to share private location tracking information when an individual is at risk of serious harm, but another matter entirely to give them carte blanche authority to share that information about anyone and for any reason. We strongly urge the General Assembly to eliminate this problematic sentence from the bill before its passage. It is time to put some brakes on the growth of the surveillance state.” The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the bill (S-284, H-5456), which are pending in committee.