TN ban on warrantless cell phone tracking awaits governor’s signature

By Josh Peterson | Watchdog.org

Tennessee law enforcement may soon need a warrant before tracking the whereabouts of a suspect’s cell phone.

GET A WARRANT: Police in Tennessee may soon have to obtain a warrant to track the location of a suspect’s cell phone.

The Tennessee General Assembly recently passed a bill that bans “a governmental entity or law enforcement agency from obtaining the location information of an electronic device without a search warrant except under certain circumstances.”

As of Monday, the bill was listed as ready to be signed by the speaker of the House and the speaker of the Senate. From there, the bill will be ready for Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

The OffNow.org coalition, an organization fighting at federal surveillance the state level, criticized an amendment to the bill granting law enforcement special exemptions to engage in warrantless location tracking.

Those exemptions include: if the device was reported stolen by the owner, to “prevent imminent danger to the public,” and if the device owner posted their location “within the last twenty-four (24) hours on a social media web site.”

“So, simply posting a picture of dinner and sharing where you ate it on Facebook could trigger that 24 hour ‘exception’ and open the door to Tennessee government agents tracking you without a warrant,” wrote OffNow.org on its website.

“While the rest of the bill includes some strong restrictions against tracking locations, people in Tennessee should consider not posting their location on ANY social media sites at any time,” said the organization.

Cell phones and smart phones present law enforcement agencies across the country with the ability to track suspects in ways once only sensationalized by Hollywood.

A USA Today investigation published in December revealed that at least 25 police departments across the country, for example, including Florida, own a Stingray — portable devices that mimic a cell tower and trick nearby cell phones to connect to it.

The Stingray then captures the connected devices’ data, allowing law enforcement to track users’ locations.

Florida law enforcement agencies have since stonewalled public records requests by the American Civil Liberties Union about their use of the technology, Watchdog.org previously reported.

In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe approved a bill requiring that law enforcement obtain a warrant before tracking the location of a cell phone; the law also takes effect July 1.

Real-time location tracking without a warrant is not the only area state lawmakers are looking to rein in law enforcement agencies.

Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert signed a bill into law March 31 banning the admission of electronic data collected without a warrant in criminal court proceedings.

The law takes effect July 1.

Contact Josh Peterson at jpeterson@watchdog.org. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jdpeterson

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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