Yesterday, the ACLU filed a major federal lawsuit in response to last week’s chilling disclosure that the federal government obtained millions of phone call information records from Verizon as a routine matter. Despite the enormous privacy concerns raised by this unprecedented data-mining collaboration, the General Assembly is poised to pass a bill that would specifically allow both federal and state officials to similarly obtain the location tracking information of any Rhode Island cell phone subscriber for any reason and at any time.
The authorization to do so is contained in an otherwise non-controversial bill known as the “Kelsey Smith Act,” which is designed to help police more quickly locate individuals who are missing or are being kidnapped. (H-5456, S-284)
Although the bill provides for the release of cell phone tracking information to police upon request in certain emergency situations, a separate section of the bill goes further to broadly provide that:
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, nothing in this section prohibits a wireless telecommunications carrier from establishing protocols by which the carrier could voluntarily disclose device location information.”
In other words, voluntary disclosure of tracking information is not, in fact, limited to emergencies.
The geographic location of cell phones is tracked whenever the devices are turned on, and the information is often retained by phone companies for at least a year. This can reveal strikingly personal information. As a federal judge wrote, a person’s location data might disclose “whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.” In short, phone metadata can sometimes reveal almost as much as the content of the phone calls themselves.
The goal of the Kelsey Smith bill is a laudable one. But it is one thing for phone companies and police to share private location tracking information when an individual is at risk of serious harm, and another matter entirely to give them carte blanche authority to share that information about anyone for any reason. Yet this bill is quietly making its way through the legislative process with virtually no objection.
The revelations this past week about the secret tracking of phone calls by the federal government should give us all pause. It would be extremely unfortunate if, despite these revelations, Rhode Island actually gave the government the formal authority to do the same thing for cell phone tracking records. General Assembly members should be strongly urged to eliminate this dangerous provision from the bill before its passage.