Legislation sponsored by Rep. Edith H. Ajello and Sen. Donna M. Nesselbush has been signed into law, protecting citizens’ privacy by requiring law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant before seeking location data collected from cellular phones and other electronic devices by service providers.
The legislation (2016-H 7167A, 2016-S 2403A) was drafted to protect against unwarranted invasions of privacy caused by the release of information about the location of electronic devices, particularly cellular phones, which “ping” nearby cellular towers every few seconds, potentially providing a map of any user’s daily movements.
Such information can be a powerful tool for law enforcement, revealing a person’s whereabouts at any time, their daily habits and the company they keep. But its use has grown tremendously in recent years, with few legal protections for consumers. In many instances, law enforcement officers ask service providers for “tower dumps,” where the cell phone information of every person who passed a particular tower is released. Anyone who was in the same vicinity, and not necessarily even at the same time, as a person under investigation, can be compromised by a tower dump.
In 2013, a federal inquiry by U.S. Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts determined that police requests for cell phone information had doubled over the previous five years. That year, AT&T received more than a 100,000 requests for historical or real-time location information. Verizon reported 30,000 requests for cell phone location information, with more than 2,000 of those requests for cell phone tower dumps.
The legislation, which passed the General Assembly June 18 and Gov. Gina M. Raimondo ceremonially signed into law Aug. 2, would require investigators secure a search warrant before obtaining location data from service providers.
“Citizens have the right to expect that they will not have their personal information investigated by the police without a good reason. Our legislation makes location data subject to the same legal standard as other personal information, so that a judge will generally determine that a search is, indeed, appropriate, ensuring that there is at least some oversight of the use of location data. This is a very reasonable limit that ensures that citizens’ whereabouts at all times aren’t up for grabs without reason,” said Representative Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence).
Senator Nesselbush (D-Dist. 15, Pawtucket, North Providence) said she reveres the privacy protections enshrined in the United States Constitution and Rhode Island law.
“We wanted to protect the public’s right to privacy while allowing law enforcement to use cell phone tracking data, upon obtaining a warrant. Requiring a warrant won’t make it unreasonably difficult for police to do their job. This bill just applies the same standard that is used for most other searches to location data. It’s essentially updating search warrant law for the information age,” she said.
The new law does provide exceptions in cases such as when it is necessary to respond to a user’s call for emergency services, for location data from devices like monitoring bracelets used as a condition of parole or sentence conditions or with users’ consent.
It also requires that those whose information was released be notified within five days, except in situations where that notification would jeopardize ongoing investigations or trials or endanger someone.