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Rhode Island Law Bans Warrantless Location Tracking

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Sept. 8, 2016) – Under a new law passed during the last legislative session, police in Rhode Island must now obtain a warrant before obtaining location information from electronic devices in most situations. The new law not only protects privacy in Rhode Island, but also takes an important first step in addressing the growing federal surveillance state.

A coalition of Democratic representatives including Rep. Edith Ajello, Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, Rep. Katherine Kazarian, Rep. Jeremiah O’Grady and Rep. Teresa Tanzi sponsored House Bill 7167 (HB7167).  Sen. Donna Nesselbush sponsored the Senate version of the bill. The new law prohibits any agent of the state or its political subdivisions from obtaining location information without a warrant with only a few exceptions.

The House passed HB7167 by a 71-0 vote in June. The Senate concurred 28-8.  Gov. Gina Raimondo signed the bill into law on July 12, and it went into immediate effect.

The new law does include some exceptions to the warrant requirement, including when a state agent “believes an emergency involving immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to any person requires the obtaining  of  information  relating  to  the  emergency without  delay.” The law also allows law enforcement to obtain location information with the express consent of the device’s owner; the express, informed consent of a minor’s legal guardian; if the owner reports the device lost or stolen; and to respond to calls for emergency services.

ACLU of Rhode Island policy associate Hillary Davis said passage of the legislation was necessary to limit “perhaps the most comprehensive surveillance of individuals we have faced to date.”

Impact on Federal Programs

The new Rhode Island law will also have some limited impact on federal surveillance programs.

By requiring a warrant, the bill prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from “obtaining” warrantless data shared with them by federal agencies like the NSA. In other words, even if the feds collect location information in Rhode Island, state and local law enforcement can no longer get or utilize it.

Information released by Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers revealed the NSA tracks the physical location of people through their cellphones. In late 2013, the Washington Post reported that NSA is “gathering nearly 5 billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world.” This includes location data on “tens of millions” of Americans each year – without a warrant.

We also know the NSA shares this information with state and local law enforcement. Reuters revealed the extent of such NSA data sharing in an August 2013 article. According to documents obtained by the news agency, the NSA passes information to police through a formerly secret DEA unit known Special Operations Divisions and the cases “rarely involve national security issues.” Almost all of the information involves regular criminal investigations, not terror-related investigations.

In other words, not only does the NSA collect and store this data, using it to build profiles. The agency encourages state and local law enforcement to violate the Fourth Amendment by making use of this information in their day-to-day investigations.

By prohibiting wholesale collection of location data without a warrant, HB7167 should also limit the amount of data available that can find its way into federal data bases. As a result of the rapid evolution of information sharing, locally-gathered information doesn’t remain “local” for very long. With new intelligence sharing systems like these fusion centers, along with Joint Terrorism Task Forces and the ISE, information collected by local police in any city or small town in America can now quickly end up in federal intelligence databases. That means your information becomes accessible across the country with a click of a mouse.

Next Steps

Passage of HB7167 sets the foundation for further restrictions on police surveillance in Rhode Island. Last session, bills to limit drone surveillance and the use of cell site simulators to sweep up electronic communications failed to pass through the legislature. Having taken the first step to successfully limit location tracking, activists can build on the momentum to advance additional privacy protections in 2017. Legislators should also consider expanding the provisions of of the new law to include other electronic data, including cell phone calls, emails, text messages and web browsing information.