New Hampshire is continuing to lead the way in privacy. After becoming the first state to ban the use of automatic license plate readers, its legislators are now attempting to rein in warrantless tracking of cellphone users. A couple of false starts (dating back to last year) resulted in no changes (and complaints from app makers that the wording might make some of their offerings illegal).
But it now appears to be moving forward again after the implementation of some changes. The heart of the bill is this paragraph:
No government entity shall place, locate, or install an electronic device on the person or property of another, or obtain location information from such an electronic device, without a warrant issued by a judge based on probable cause and on a case-by-case basis.
As Watchdog.org points out, the spirit of the law is somewhat undermined by the letter of the law.
There are noteworthy exceptions, many of which appeared in previous iterations.
Tracking is permitted without a warrant with the informed consent of a device owner, unless the owner knowingly loaned it to a third party. You can track calls for 911 emergencies. A parent or legal guardian can provide informed consent to locate a missing child. The government can track its own property or employees in possession of that property. And alcohol ignition interlock control devices placed by court order would also be traceable without a warrant.
The other problem with the bill is a problem with all bills introduced by state legislators: it can’t lock out federal intrusion, at least not in its present form. The bill states that it does not apply to “federal government agencies.” So, if local law enforcement wants to engage in warrantless tracking of cellphones, all it has to do is partner up with a federal agency.
On top of that, there are the loopholes that have always been exploited. Stingray use — one method of tracking location — has routinely been hidden under more innocuous paperwork, like pen register orders. Obtaining cellphone records — including location data — is primarily done with subpoenas, considering most laws still treat these as third-party business records. While the law would force some of the latter requests to take the form of a search warrant, it doesn’t make a clear distinction between real-time tracking and historical data.
What it does appear to outlaw is the warrantless, real-time tracking of GPS location, meaning tracking devices can only be deployed after obtaining a warrant. This is certainly a step forward, one perhaps partially prompted by the Supreme Court’s US v. Jones decision. However, this would go against precedent in the First Circuit Court (which covers New Hampshire), which has found that warrantless GPS tracking devices may constitute a “search,” but not to the extent that a lack of a warrant should automatically result in suppression of evidence. (Also somewhat aligned with the Supreme Court’s reluctance to declare all GPS tracking worthy of a warrant.)
The court then held that it was reasonable for the agents to use the GPS device in Sparks’ case based upon reliance on clear precedent.
However, the court noted that they did not decide the issue of whether any exceptions to the warrant requirement exist for future installation use of the GPS device to monitor suspect’s movements. Therefore, future use of such GPS monitoring is governed under the United States v. Jones.
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
Although this case appeared before the judges after the Supreme Court’s US v. Jones decision, the events of the case proceeded that finding. This may change rulings in the future, but for now, the First Circuit has not made it expressly clear that tracking devices require warrants.
As the proposed law pertains to physical tracking devices, it’s much more closely aligned with the Supreme Court’s decision. Left unclear is its application to Stingray devices and obtaining historical cell site location information from telcos — both forms of “tracking” that don’t involve attaching a monitoring device to a “person or property.”