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Senator Al Franken revives debate on privacy act requiring user consent for location sharing

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Senator Al Franken (D-MN), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, plans to debate legislation that would require companies to obtain express consent from users before collecting, obtaining, or sharing the location data from mobile phones. The Location Privacy Protection Act of 2012 would require location data handlers to disclose what information is collected and inform users about how to "revoke consent" for data collection and sharing. In a statement provided by his office, Senator Franken warned of ubiquitous "personal tracking devices" and said that "the law allows companies to collect and disclose our location information without our knowledge and consent." In the senator's fact sheet about the bill, privacy issues with the iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone 7 are all specifically named.

Under Franken's leadership, the subcommittee has aggressively investigated privacy issues in the technology world, including location tracking, the Carrier IQ controversy, and the use of facial recognition technology. He's also spared little deference to firms over their use of consumer data — in a March speech, Franken said that "consumers are out on a limb when it comes to legal protections" for personal information, and that a market crowded by a few dominant companies like Google and Facebook could kill incentives to respect privacy.

"Bad actors are using these same loopholes to develop and market stalking apps to the public."

While the bill would apply broadly to all location tracking services, it also specifically addresses the issue of GPS stalking, adding specific penalties for stalkers. The bill would make it a crime to "intentionally operate a stalking application" to stalk others. It would also mobilize the government to investigate GPS stalking: requiring the National Institute of Justice to study the role of geolocation information in violence against women, and law enforcement agencies to track geolocation crime complaints.

Franken first introduced the privacy bill in 2011 (S. 1223), though it never broke out of committee, and it was similar to a competing bill from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that covered both nongovernmental location data use, and location data use by law enforcement. Franken's bill would provide a patch for certain protections that digital rights advocates say are missing from the nation's existing privacy authority: the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. (A modernized version of the ECPA could pass this year.) While Franken has strong co-sponsorship from peers in the Senate on the measure, he'll have a tough time getting anything done before the 112th Congress terminates on January 3rd — especially with the country's impending fiscal cliff stealing Washington's attention.

Correction: The original version of this article indicated that Senator Franken reintroduced the bill. He will not reintroduce the bill, but will return the bill to the committee for markup. We apologize for the error.