Calling Current Law ‘Outdated,’ Judiciary Chairman Wants To Legislate In Cell Phone Battle

As the Obama administration argues in court for the right to track the locations of cell phones, a leading lawmaker on civil liberties issues wants to update current legislation to help solve the problem.

A Justice Department attorney went before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Friday to argue that authorities don’t need to obtain a search warrant in order to gain access to the location information of Americans’ cell phones. Civil liberties groups, however, argue that Americans should expect some right to privacy. These groups want the appeals court to uphold (PDF) a lower-court ruling that found the government does need a search warrant.

Judge Dolores Sloviter reportedly expressed some skepticism toward the Obama administration position, saying that cell phone location data could be used for wrongful political purposes.

The rules that govern this area of the law is unclear because technology has outpaced legislation, according to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“In the Information Age, cell phones, BlackBerries and other innovative technologies make it easier for Americans to quickly share information, with countless benefits. But, these technologies also create privacy challenges that were unforeseen when Congress enacted federal electronic privacy laws decades ago,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “The use of cell phone locational information impacts Americans across the nation and from every walk of life. The question of how best to protect these digital communications, while providing law enforcement with the tools that it needs to keep us safe, has no simple answer. But, what is clear is that our federal electronic privacy laws are woefully outdated. Congress must work with the Justice Department, privacy advocates and the technology industry to update and clarify the law to reflect the realities of our times.”

In contrast to Leahy’s view toward changing technology, one of the civil liberties groups that opposes the no-search-warrant Justice Department argument mocks the Obama administration’s stated solution to the problem: “One who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone.”

Generally seen as promoting civil liberties as a lawmaker, Leahy promises to hold a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to explore “much-needed” updates to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

“I hope others in Congress will work with me to address this important issue on behalf of the American people,” he says.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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