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Bipartisan Coalition Emerges to Support Geolocation Privacy Bill in Congress

As time passes, the usefulness of the party labels “Democrat” and “Republican” as a reliable shorthand for policy preference seems to be falling away. Bipartisan coalitions for bills are there in the 113th Congress, if you look beyond the headlines for them.

Consider the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (also known as the “GPS Act”), introduced as S. 639 in the Senate by Democrat Ron Wyden and introduced as H.R. 1312 in the House by Republican Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz and Wyden don’t agree on much other than this issue, but they have agreed over the past two years to work together to promote a bill which, if passed into law, would:

  • Require the U.S. government to obtain a warrant demonstrating probable cause to believe in the existence of criminal activity (as required by the much-ignored Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) before it may track the whereabouts of people using satellite-based Global Positioning System signals, with an exception for emergencies.
  • Prevents for-profit businesses from nabbing Americans’ geolocation information without permission.
  • Establishes the crime of fraud for those who grad Americans’ geolocation information under false pretenses.

The non-partisan American Civil Liberties Union is bringing a case before federal courts, trying to get the judiciary to rule that constitutionally-speaking, the government must obtain warrants before tracking people’s whereabouts:

“Warrants are essential because, as the Supreme Court has written, they provide ‘the detached scrutiny of a neutral magistrate, which is a more reliable safeguard against improper searches than the hurried judgment of a law enforcement officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime.’ This safeguard is particularly important when it comes to GPS tracking because the technology is cheap, convenient, difficult to detect, and highly intrusive. Given how easy and inexpensive it is to track a suspect using GPS, neither cost nor effort will stop the government from using it in cases where it isn’t reasonable. The courts must impose strict limitations on the use of this technology in order to protect the right of all Americans to go about their daily lives without being tracked by the government. Essential elements of our privacy are at stake: as the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has explained,

‘A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce 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.'”

All-Seeing Eye: We Know Where You AreIt’s good to see the ACLU get involved. But given the deference to terrorism scares shown by the judiciary, and given the opposition of President Barack Obama to constitutional limits on GPS surveillance, leaving the matter up to the courts isn’t a safe choice. This is why the GPS Act matters, and it is also why the bipartisan nature of the GPS Act’s support is striking (if small). The following are the supporters of the GPS Act listed through cosponsorship in Congress:

Sen. Ron Wyden (Democrat-OR) — principal sponsor
Sen. Mark Kirk (Republican-IL)

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Republican-UT, District 3) — principal sponsor
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Democrat-OR, District 3)
Rep. Steve Chabot (Republican-OH, District 1)
Rep. John Conyers (Democrat-MI, District 13)
Rep. Peter DeFazio (Democrat-OR, District 4)
Rep. Sam Farr (Democrat-CA, District 20)
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Democrat-AZ, District 3)
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Democrat-CA, District 19)
Rep. Chellie Pingree (Democrat-ME, District 1)
Rep. Ted Poe (Republican-TX, District 2)
Rep. Jared Polis (Democrat-CO, District 2)
Rep. F. Sensenbrenner (Republican-WI, District 5)
Rep. Peter Welch (Democrat-VT, District 0)

10 Democrats plus 5 Republicans = not nearly enough support, but this is a good bipartisan start. If you don’t see your Senators or Representative named here, won’t you call up the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and give them a piece of your mind?

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