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Bills regulate government tracking of mobile phone

ST. PAUL — Minnesotans might be surprised to learn that the government can track their movements.

“They are literally shocked that the government can access the location of your cell phone without notice,” Rep. Joe Atkins, D-Inver Grove Heights, said Tuesday before a state House committee approved two bills to make it harder for law enforcement agencies to follow mobile phones and, thus, their owners.

The two similar bills easily passed on voice votes to require police to obtain search warrants before tracking phones. The bills would allow emergency tracking, such as where a life in is immediate danger, without going to a judge first.

Current law has a lower standard to track phones than obtaining a search warrant.

Atkins and Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, said their bills can be tweaked to satisfy law enforcement officials’ concerns before final votes.

“We are not necessarily far apart on this issue,” Lesch said.

The bills have more committee stops before reaching the full House.

Assistant Superintendent Drew Evans of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension told the House Public Safety Committee police have used mobile phone-tracking technology for five years.

One of his complaints about the bills is they would restrict tracking to felony investigations. He said suspects in lesser crimes, such as domestic assault and stalking, also should be tracked.

The bills also have provisions that require law enforcement agencies to eventually notify people they are tracking, although a judge can delay that notification.

“Any premature disclosure of information ... mid-investigation, especially when we are dealing with long-term criminal investigation ... is going to be an issue with the loss of future investigative evidence,” said Executive Director James Franklin of the Minnesota State Sheriffs’ Association.

Privacy advocates said current law allows too much data to remain secret.

“Law enforcement is increasingly taking advantage of Minnesota’s privacy laws written before these innovations,” said Executive Director Charles Samuelson of the American Civil Liberties Union Minnesota chapter.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.