Written bySamantha Ehlinger
The influential chairman of a House committee is again putting his support behind two bipartisan bills that would curb law enforcement’s use of intercepted mobile-phone data without a warrant.
The revival of the legislation comes after the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee published a yearlong investigation in December that delved into the devices agencies use to intercept wireless communications, called cell site simulators, IMSI catchers or “stingrays.”
The panel’s chairman, Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said he hopes Congress is better prepared to pass the legislation this year. Both were also introduced last Congress, but neither got much traction.
One bill would require agencies to get a warrant to use cell-site simulators that can capture cell phone data by mimicking a cell phone tower. The other would require warrants to use or disclose secretly collected geolocation data.
Chaffetz and two other members of Congress reintroduced Wednesday The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, which would make it illegal to intercept Americans’ geolocation information without their knowledge, or to use or disclose information collected that way, except after obtaining a warrant or in other specified circumstances.
Chaffetz actually first introduced the GPS Act during the 112th Congress and the bill had 27 cosponsors, according to Congress.gov. He also reintroduced it during the 113th Congress.
When asked Wednesday why the bills hadn’t made it through in the past, Chaffetz said, “In large part, it’s an education.”
When Chaffetz talks to his colleagues, “I think they’re pretty stunned the government is spending close to $100 million on this technology,” he said.
“Part of the challenge I have with my colleagues, with all due respect, is most — they just don’t understand technology, they don’t understand how it works,” he said, with a caveat, “but there are some people that are very good on this.”
His committee released a bipartisan staff report in December that found the departments of Justice and Homeland Security spent more than $95 million cumulatively on cell site simulators, as FedScoop reported at its release.
The report said Congress and the agencies involved should work on clarifying appropriate use of the devices by state and local law enforcement and the use of geolocation data in general.
“I worry about the abuse, you know?” Chaffetz said of stingrays, at an event Wednesday morning in Washington at the libertarian Cato Institute. “You have human beings at these departments and agencies, and can you guarantee they didn’t use those for their own personal use? ‘Hey there’s somebody that’s attractive, I want to figure out what their phone number is.'”
Accordingly, the GPS Act, “would also combat high-tech stalking by creating criminal penalties for surreptitiously using an electronic device to track a person’s movements, and it would prohibit commercial service providers from sharing customers’ geolocation information with outside entities without customer consent,” according to a news release.
The key with the GPS Act is an attempt to define standards, Chaffetz said, “saying your geolocation does require a probable cause warrant, and that would be the case for all law enforcement.”
“And again I worry about these machines getting in the hand of nefarious actors, but at least there would be some degree of penalty,” he said.