If a police officer wants to follow you around, there's nothing to stop him. And that's just fine.
But if a police officer wants your cell phone to follow you for him, not only in real time but over the past however many days, there is also nothing to stop him. Or to stop menacing ex-boyfriends from using the same technology to annoy innocent women. Or to stop phone companies and data providers from selling a detailed record of your comings and goings, whether you want them to or not.
And that is a problem. A problem that Utah's Rep. Jason Chaffetz has a plan to solve.
Together with Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, the Republican congressman from Utah's 3rd District is putting forward what's called the GPS Act. GPS in this case standing for Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance.
As Chaffetz points out, current law is mostly silent on how government, businesses and individuals can get hold of the data generated by cell phones, mobile computers and the GPS units found in more and more automobiles. That's because most of the laws we have that might be relevant were written when there was no such thing as GPS devices.
The purpose of these gizmos is to allow you to find your way to a new city or restaurant, or to allow your laptop or cell phone to find the network it will use to serve your needs. Those are things that benefit you, the person who owns the machine and pays the bill.
A side effect is that the network, and some human being looking over its shoulder, can use your private devices to find where you are now, or where you were last Thursday at midnight, and use that information to send you an advertisement you don't want, a threatening letter or an arrest warrant.
In the case of individuals and businesses, that ought to be against the law. And the Chaffetz-Wyden bill would make it as illegal to do those things as it already is for anyone outside law enforcement to tap your telephone. In the case of law enforcement agencies, they may have legitimate reasons to trace your GPS records, but, as is the case with phone taps, they should have probable cause and a warrant to do so.
The bill would allow the same kind of tap-first, get-warrant-afterward for emergencies that are now allowed for phone tap warrants. And it would also allow police to track you through your GPS devices if they have reason to believe you are injured, lost or otherwise in need of assistance.
The bill is exactly the kind of thing that Congress should be about, updating laws to make them conform at once to changing technologies and eternal standards of privacy and individual rights.