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Bill to restrict tracking of cellphone locations gaining steam

State Sen. Daniel Biss. File Pho| Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media

State Sen. Daniel Biss. File Photo | Buzz Orr~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 21, 2014 12:03AM

SPRINGFIELD — With a major law-enforcement office in his corner, one suburban lawmaker is taking another stab at legislation that prevents police from tracking cellphone locations without court approval.

The Senate bill, which has advanced out of committee, would prevent law-enforcement officials from looking up a person’s current or future location information without first getting a court order based on probable cause that this person has, is or will commit a crime.

State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, said his bill was about protecting people’s privacy.

“If you envision a world where there’s no gates around what can be done with our information that comes from a cellphone — which says where you are at all times, who you’re communicating with and what you’ve sent — that’s a picture of a world that nobody wants to live in,” Biss said.

However, Biss said the bill had several exceptions that justified law-enforcement surveillance without first proving probable cause: This includes locating victims or suspects in an emergency situation where there’s a “clear and present danger of imminent death or great bodily harm,” keeping track of those who wear penal ankle bracelets, and accessing location information that’s “broadly available to the general public” such as information posted on a social media website.

Patrick Coughlin, deputy chief of narcotics for the Cook County State’s Attorney Office, had testified against Biss’ previous anti-surveillance bill last year in front of a Senate committee. But over the summer, Biss negotiated changes with the American Civil Liberties Union that made the bill palatable to Coughlin.

“Our biggest objection was that we needed to have probable cause for any location information, including historical information — where someone was a week ago,” Coughlin said.

Coughlin said this barrier on retrieving past location data could hinder police investigations concerning a suspect’s location on the night of a murder, for example. So Biss agreed to focus his legislation on present and future location tracking.

“In a perfect world, I would have it current, future and past, but the process of democracy means making concessions,” Biss said. “I think we’ve retained the conceptual core of the bill, and it’s something I’m very satisfied with.”

Ed Yohnka, the ACLU communications and public policy director, said the negotiations were worthwhile because on a state level, the bill addresses privacy and technology issues — something he said federal statutes have failed to thoroughly cover.

“I think the reason this bill is important is this: Until there’s a violation, most people don’t understand that their privacy is at risk,” he said. “Our goal was to protect that privacy. I think this is commonsense agreement that just took some dialogue and some time to work out.”

Despite the support of the ACLU and the State’s Attorney’s Office, one law-enforcement group would not stand behind Biss’ legislation.

The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association opposed the bill in committee but failed to weigh in on the matter, though several attempts were made to contact the organization’s executive director.

All in all, Biss said he’s optimistic about passing his bill in the Senate but that the House was more “difficult to predict.” State Rep. Ann Williams, D-Chicago, agreed to sponsor Biss’ legislation if it passes in the Senate.


Twitter: @mllediz

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