Clear Geolocation Guidelines Are Needed to Protect Privacy Rights

by RON WYDEN , U.S. Senator from Oregon  |  published on June 27, 2012

Before cellphones were commonplace, law enforcement’s ability to track your movements was largely limited to the natural human powers of observation. As long as tracking you around the clock meant following you around the clock, it was generally safe to assume that law enforcement would only dedicate the time, energy, and resources necessary to follow you if they had a good reason. In other words, there was little risk that overreaching law enforcement would abuse its surveillance powers to track law-abiding citizens.

Things have changed.

Thanks to technological advancements, police departments no longer have to pay overtime or divert resources from other projects to find out where someone goes. Tracking suspects or law-abiding individuals is now as easy as accessing their GPS signals or asking a cellphone company for its customers’ location records.

While having access to geolocation data is clearly useful for law enforcement agencies, without the resource limitations that used to discourage the government from tracking you without good reason, the limits on when and how geolocation data can be accessed are unclear. A police department, for example, might not have the resources to follow everyone who lives within a city block for a month, but without clear rules for electronic tracking there is nothing to stop it from requesting every resident’s cellphone location history.

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