Sunday, March 31, 2013

On the importance of visual aids: Location tracking edition

Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman has a nice feature in today's paper on the push to require a warrant for police to access historical personal cell phone tracking information ("Should police require a warrant to track cellphone users? Some legislators think so," March 31), an effort in which your correspondent has been privileged to be involved through the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition. His article opened:
As the video played in the Texas Capitol meeting room, the red target jerked back and forth across the map, tracing every movement that Malte Spitz, a German politician, had made during several months in 2009 — when he was riding a train, when he was at a nuclear protest, when he was in meetings or at a store, and when he was at home.

Who was tracking him? His cellphone.

Using records of cell use — from phone calls to Twitter usage to Web access — Spitz was able to construct “an exact road map of what he did,” as state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, explained to fellow lawmakers gathered in the room. He was tracked in Germany by his phone company, and he sued to get his own records to see how minutely his movements could be tracked.

In much the same manner, Hughes explained, law enforcement in Texas and across the United States is using call-tracking information in investigations. That has led to questions about whether the technology violates the constitutional right to privacy or whether it is simply a high-tech shortcut to solve crimes.

A large group of Texas legislators wants to ban the practice unless police obtain a court order, and the issue is pitting tea party activists and others who oppose intrusive Big Brother government against the police, who say it is a boon to solving crimes. The House bill alone has nearly 100 co-authors in the 150-member chamber.

“This is a case where the law needs to catch up with technology,” Hughes told the wide-eyed House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, as the video ended. “There seems to be broad consensus that accessing this information should require some form of probable cause. … It doesn’t require that now.”
Here's a link to the video referenced in the lede demonstrating Green Party politician Malte Spitz's cell-phone tracking data mapped over six months and linked to his public Twitter and Facebook entries. The fact that legislators were "wide eyed" when the video was shown to them well after midnight tells you Spitz's infographic was quite the attention grabber. Keep in mind that this data was compiled by his phone company in 2009, but the more towers that exist, the more accurate the tracking. The rise of smart phones has necessitated construction of thousands of new towers and antenna nationwide, so historical tracking today is much more accurate than when Herr Spitz sued his phone company to get his location data and will continue to become more accurate as time goes on and even more cell towers and antenna generate ever-more data points. I bet Mr. Spitz never thought his lawsuit results would be presented as Exhibit A by a Republican legislator in Texas to show how invasive location tracking could be. (See Spitz's TED Talk.)

Regrettably, the article continues to perpetuate a false characterization from the hearing about how personal location data is currently obtained. Ward quoted Brian Tabor of the Dallas Police Department who opined, “We have a problem with raising the bar from reasonable suspicion (that does not require a warrant) to probable cause (that does). It takes away a valuable tool.” That comment, though, misstates the current standard law enforcement must meet to use cell phone tracking, which under Texas and federal law is authorized merely when the information may be "relevant." "Reasonable suspicion" is not required under Texas law except for physical mobile tracking devices like those at issue in US v. Jones. And some agencies, like the Texas Department of Insurance, don't even rise to that threshold, obtaining location data from cell phone companies under an administrative subpoena without any contact with a judge, according to testimony at the hearing.

One other clarification: Mike slightly understated the bill's support when he wrote that it has "nearly 100 co-authors in the 150-member [House] chamber." As of Tuesday, the day the bill was heard in committee, HB 1608 had 101 "co-authors," four "joint authors," plus of course the primary author Bryan Hughes for a total of 106 out of 150 House members, or 71% of the Texas House, so far. Six of the nine House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee members are presently primary, joint or co-authors, and 9 of 15 members on the Calendars Committee have also signed on to support the bill as co-authors. Anything can happen, but that's an enviably optimistic starting point for HB 1608.

Ward depicted support for the bill as sort of a Tea Party uprising - he wrote, "the issue is pitting tea party activists and others who oppose intrusive Big Brother government against the police, who say it is a boon to solving crimes" - but support for requiring warrants for cell-phone tracking is more bipartisan than that. Looking at the list of 106, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the lower chamber have signed on to support the bill. Rep. Hughes has done a terrific job of promoting the legislation across party lines..

BTW, if your state rep is not on this list, then call them to ask them to become a co-author of HB 1608 (you can look up their contact info here.) If your state rep is already on the list, call them to say thank you and ask them to hang tough on the warrant and reporting requirements.

See related, recent Grits coverage:

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