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The Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act

In recent months, there’s been an increasing push for geolocation information awareness. In a study released in March 2013, researchers analyzed the coarse location histories recorded to the nearest hour of 1.5 million mobile phone users. The researchers found that knowing which 23-block area a specific device was operating in during four distinct 60-minute periods was sufficient to uniquely identify 95 percent of location histories in the dataset.

As the unique and possibly sensitive nature of certain geolocation information becomes more apparent, US lawmakers are pushing legislation intended to address privacy issues related to the collection, use and disclosure of geolocation information.

One of these pieces of legislation is known as the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act. The bill contains a rather broad definition of “geolocation information,” not unlike other pieces of legislation which have been introduced. It notably contains many of the same provisions as the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act), also introduced in March.

More on the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act

The Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act (OCGPA) was reintroduced on March 6, 2013 by Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Ted Poe (R-TX) and Suzan DelBene (D-WA). The bill was subsequently referred to the House judiciary and intelligence committees. The legislation was originally introduced by Representative Lofgren as the ECPA 2.0 Act of 2012, but it was not considered.

What the OCGPA means is that, if passed and signed into law, law enforcement officials would be required to obtain a warrant “based on probable cause” before they can track someone using a GPS device or cell phone location data.

According to the ACLU’s legislative counsel Chris Calabrese:

“Police routinely get people’s location information with little judicial oversight because Congress has never defined the appropriate checks and balances. Under the GPS Act, all that would change. Police would need to convince a judge that a person is likely engaging in criminal activity before accessing and monitoring someone’s location data.”

Of course, there are still ways to determine an individual’s location, especially through social media. There are some people who have no trouble publicly sharing where they have checked-in, via services such as Facebook and Foursquare. Other location-based services have made it rather simple to find people, especially with data attached to photos.

The OCGPA would not necessarily protect users from things like that; those things can be easily hidden from public view. Instead, the Act would prevent spying or tracking of American citizens for no reason other than to know what they’re doing.

For instance, consider this 2012 case in which the US Supreme Court ruled against the government in a case where authorities violated the Fourth Amendment when it placed a GPS tracking device on Antoine Jones’ car and “tracked his movements continuously for a month.” The organization claims that while this particular case revolved around needing a warrant for a GPS device, it is the closest the judiciary has even come to addressing the issue of location tracking.

Summary

This article introduces the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act (OCGPA) which is being debated by both houses in the US Congress. If it is passed and signed into law, the OCGPA would require law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant “based on probable cause” before they can track someone with a GPS device or cell phone location data.

CIPP Exam Preparation

In preparation for the Certified Information Privacy Professional/Information Technology (CIPP/IT) exam, a privacy professional should be comfortable with topics related to this post, including:

  • Location-based services – GPS (VI.C.a.)
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