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Cell Phone Privacy, GPS Technology, and Invasion of Privacy

In recent years, global positioning system (“GPS”) technology has increased in usage on various GPS-enabled devices (e.g., cars, smartcards, handheld computers, and cell phones).  This technology brings value to its users, however, it has caused a significant decrease in privacy. Private and public organizations are able to collect and use the information for different purposes. For example, private organizations may collect data for marketing. Naturally, there are proponents who argue for governmental or non-governmental collection and use of information for different reasons (e.g., national security, emergencies). There are also proponents who argue that the collection and use of information leads to abuse (e.g., unauthorized access, invasion of privacy). Therefore, we need clear and uniform legal standards to control when anyone can collect and use information about an individual.

At this time, there is no law that restricts the government’s collection or use of GPS tracking information against individuals. However, some states have enacted legislation that restricts the commercial use of GPS. The Fourth Amendment limits the use of GPS technology, but its protection from unreasonable search and seizure is less effective due to recent technology advancements.

The main issue is privacy.  In today’s highly-technological world, most individuals carry their cell phones all the time. So, wireless network providers (a/k/a cell phone carriers) are able to track the individual’s movements. On a side note, GPS technology has been used to save lives in emergencies. The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) mandates wireless network providers to submit the cell phone location for emergency 911 calls (“E911”) that have been made from cell phones. The law on this issue is relatively clear. It permits cell phone carriers to provide information to third parties (e.g., FBI, NSA, or Police) for E911 emergency calls only. However, they need the cell phone owner’s consent in any other situation.

It is now easier to collect information due to users’ constant interaction with satellites or towers.  So, there is a remarkable potential for abuse. Instead of implementing clear regulations, the Department of Justice and EFF continue with their disputes.  This discrepancy has caused the courts to be divided on the issues. In fact, the courts have grappled with the lack of jurisdictional consensus on the legal standards. See for more information.

As mentioned above, technology allows access to an individual’s activities or location. The government is behind in implementing policies to protect an individual’s right to privacy.  So, in a society that is overwhelmed with technology, there is little legislative guidance on individual privacy laws.

In sum, the state and federal lawmakers should intervene because there have been, and probably will be, privacy violations.  At this time, the courts seem to have discretion to allow or disallow access to information without requiring a high burden of probable cause.  There is no doubt that GPS (and similar technologies) provide advantages to users, however, there are disadvantages that can cause unwarranted complications (e.g., invasion of privacy) for the same users.

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