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Warrant Required to Tap Smartphone Location Under U.S. Bill

June 15 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. law enforcement agencies would be required to obtain a warrant to access location data from an individual’s smartphone or navigation device under a bill introduced in Congress today.

The proposed legislation also would require companies to get consumers’ consent before selling or sharing their location data, according to the measure, which is co-sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican.

“Going to a communications company and asking them to turn somebody’s cell phone into a tracking device has a major privacy impact,” Wyden said at a news conference today.

The bill, which was introduced in the House and Senate, would require government agencies to obtain a warrant for geolocation data in the same way they would for a wiretap under current law, Wyden said.

Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee on intellectual property, competition and the Internet, also signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill.

Lawmakers in recent months have increased scrutiny of how smartphones and tablet computers collect information on users’ location and movements. Apple Inc. and Google Inc., makers of software used in millions of smartphones, have defended their handling of user location data at a series of congressional hearings this year, saying they do not track individuals.

Franken Bill

Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Apple, declined to comment. Google is reviewing the bill and had no immediate comment, company spokesman Dan Martin said in an e-mail.

A separate measure introduced in the Senate today would require companies such as Apple and Google as well as application developers to obtain permission from mobile users before collecting location data and sharing that information with third parties.

That bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Senators Al Franken of Minnesota and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Franken, who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law, held a May 10 hearing on mobile privacy with executives from Apple and Google.

Franken’s hearing followed a report that the operating system of Apple’s iPhones and iPads logs users’ coordinates along with the time a location is visited. The Cupertino, California-based company later issued a software update to limit how much location information was being logged or let users turn off the feature.

‘Wild West’

The Wyden-Chaffetz bill introduced today would bring “much needed clarity” to legal issues around mobile location information, Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy-rights group, said in an interview.

“There are dozens of published court decisions reaching different conclusions on whether or when the government needs a search warrant to track your cell phone or access records about your past location,” Bankston said. “It’s the Wild West out there.”

The Wyden-Chaffetz bill is a “long overdue reform,” Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a technology trade group representing companies including Google, Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc., said in a statement posted on the organization’s website.

New Clarity

“This bipartisan, bicameral legislation would protect people that use mobile devices from unnecessary government intervention into their private lives,” Black said. “It would provide new legal clarity for businesses facing various law enforcement requests for customer data.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced similar legislation in May that would require the government to obtain a search warrant to access location data gathered from wireless devices. The Leahy bill did not address how companies should handle mobile location data.

To contact the reporter on this story: Eric Engleman in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Allan Holmes at

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