Our privacy is compromised by something we likely have with us right now. Our cell phones broadcast our location without pause, and without protection.
Approximately every seven seconds, our cell phones ping the nearest tower. Each ping is recorded and, through a simple process, our location information is triangulated, accurate to within ten meters, or about 33 feet for those of us who don’t measure in meters. The telecommunications company that maintains this information can store it indefinitely, and release it whenever and to whomever it pleases — including the police.
The information this real-time map of your movements can reveal is virtually unprecedented in its detail, and that is why we have introduced legislation (S-2403, H-7167) to establish limits on law enforcement’s access to it.
The oversight that our legislation would establish is both reasonable and necessary. Our phones are with us when we wake up, when we drive to work, when we take children to school, and when we go out for the evening. They can reveal the ages of our children, the status of our health, our commitment to our job, and with whom we are at any given moment in time, whether today or on a day forgotten months ago. Yet, despite the overwhelming potential for misuse of this information, Rhode Island law does nothing to keep our every move from being scrutinized by law enforcement on demand, and without a warrant.
Our information is not safe simply because we have done nothing wrong. During an investigation, law enforcement may do a “tower dump,” where all the cell phone information of every person who passed a particular tower is released. If we’ve been in the same vicinity, and not necessarily even at the same time, as a person under investigation, our information may be compromised.
Given the level of detail that cell phone location information can provide, it is an enticing tool for law enforcement, and one that, nationwide, is frequently used. In 2013, a federal inquiry by Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts determined that police requests for cell phone information had doubled over the last five years. Verizon alone reported 30,000 requests for cell phone location information, with more than 2,000 of those requests for cell phone tower dumps. In the same year, AT&T received more than a 100,000 requests for historical or real-time location information. With no laws in place to protect their privacy, Rhode Islanders may have already seen their location information quietly handed over for investigation.
Requiring a warrant in most circumstances before this information is turned over to police will not make it impossible for law enforcement to access our information; it will not even be particularly difficult. But it will ensure some oversight by a judge to confirm that if our information is up for grabs, it is for a good reason. We want law enforcement to have the tools they need to keep our neighborhoods safe, but that does not have to come at the price of our privacy.
That is why our legislation would require, except in emergency circumstances, law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before they can access our information. When there’s a life or death situation, law enforcement should not have to wait to be able to find us. But for run-of-the-mill investigations, Rhode Islanders should feel secure that their movements throughout the day are not up for scrutiny without any judicial oversight.
It’s time for Rhode Island to join the 11 other states that have passed laws requiring warrants for cell phone location information. Rhode Islanders deserve to know they are being kept safe without being kept under surveillance. Passage of this law will ensure police have the tools they need, while still protecting the privacy of residents. It is time for Rhode Island’s privacy laws to enter the 21st century, and for cell phone location information to be protected from unwarranted access.