Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Third Circuit Punts On Important Geolocation Privacy Case

In deciding that a judge may - but is not required - to ask law enforcement to show probable cause for a warrant before asking a telecommunications company to turn over historical location data on its customers, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has in effect punted on a very important geolocation privacy case. The primary issues in the case involved statutory interpretation of a complicated section of the outdated Stored Communications Act (the "Act"). The Obama administration argued that probable cause was not required under the Act to acquire historical location data - even though "historical data"could literally be seconds old. Rather, they argued, all that was required was that a much lower standard, that the information was "relevant and material to an ongoing investigation". Opponents argued that under the Act a warrant was always required.

This case has a number of important implications broader than the Stored Communications Act itself. It is part of a much larger discussion of what is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the United States from a location standpoint. The Third Circuit Court's inability to make a firm decision on the matter highlights both the ambiguity within the Act itself as well as the complexity of the issues involved. Unfortunately, its decision provides little help to lower court judges, law enforcement or the growing number of companies that are collecting this information on a regular basis.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Why Craigslist Should Matter to Geolocation!

Craiglist's recent decision to pull its adult services section is being denounced in many circles as a blow to freedom of speech. However, businesses working in the gelocation ecosytem would be better served by taking away another lesson: the importance on winning in the court of public opinion as well as in the court of law.

Craiglist's decision does not appear to have been prompted by any direct legal action. Rather, it came after increased media reports on the use of Craigslist for prostitution and trafficking of women and girls. Craigslist took a series of steps over the past few years attempting to appease its critics. However, the pressure intensified, culminating most recently in an open letter from 18 attorneys general asking Craigslist to remove the adults services section.

Geospatial and location companies face similar media pressure with regards to privacy. Howeer, it will probably still come as a surprise to many people that the media has already played a similar role with regards to the use of geospatial technology, albeit on a much smaller scale. After numerous media reports on alleged privacy concerns raised by its use of Google Earth to identify unpermitted pools, the building department of Riverhead Town, New York recently announced it was going to stop using the service, although it had the legal right to do so. In addition according to the report, a city councilman has "prepared a resolution adopting a policy restricting the use of virtual globe map and geographic information programs."