The United States is considering implementing a ban on the sale of cellphone location data, marking the first time such a restriction would be put in place

United States is considering implementing a ban on the sale of cellphone location data

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering implementing a groundbreaking ban on the buying and selling of location data obtained from consumers’ mobile devices within the state. This move aims to regulate an industry worth billions of dollars and would be the first of its kind in the nation.

A comprehensive bill called the Location Shield Act was recently discussed in a legislative hearing. If passed, the proposed legislation would significantly restrict the collection and sale of location data derived from mobile phones in Massachusetts. It would also establish a warrant requirement for law enforcement to access location data, prohibiting data brokers from providing location information about state residents without court authorization in most cases.

Location data, typically gathered through mobile apps and digital services, does not include personal details such as names or phone numbers. However, by analyzing a device’s movement patterns, it is often possible to deduce the potential identity of its owner. For example, the locations where a phone spends evenings and overnight hours usually correspond to the owner’s home address and can be cross-referenced with other databases to obtain additional insights.

While several states have enacted privacy laws in recent years, both under Republican and Democratic-controlled legislatures, none have gone as far as completely banning the sale of location data. The usual approach in other states involves requiring digital services and data brokers to obtain explicit consent from consumers for data collection and imposing some limitations on its transfer and sale.

The Location Shield Act has gained support from a coalition of progressive activists in Massachusetts, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship. Senator Cindy Creem, a Democrat representing the Boston suburbs and also the majority leader in the state Senate, sponsors the bill. Creem expressed optimism about the bill’s prospects in the ongoing legislative session, which runs through next year.

During the public hearing, a trade association representing the technology industry voiced opposition to the proposed legislation, arguing that it would make Massachusetts diverge from other states. While supporting increased protections for specific types of personal information, the association suggested looking to a privacy law recently passed in Connecticut as an alternative to a complete ban on location data transfers. They proposed giving consumers the ability to opt out of data sales.

Advocates of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union and groups supporting abortion rights, argue that the need to protect digital information revealing consumer activities has been underscored by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which allows states to criminalize certain abortion procedures. They claim that phone location data, especially when available for sale, could enable the tracking of individuals seeking abortions across state lines. Supporters of the bill have also raised concerns about digital stalking and national security threats posed by the availability of individuals’ data for sale.

The proposed legislation would still permit digital services to collect consumer location information for providing services within the state, such as weather updates or ride-sharing. However, it would impose a near-total ban on the sale or transfer of that data to other entities.

The issue of public and private access to location data has gained significant attention in recent years, particularly as government entities, including law enforcement, the military, and intelligence agencies, have increasingly engaged in collecting and utilizing large datasets available for sale. While the Supreme Court has ruled that a warrant is generally required for law enforcement to access location data from cellphone carriers, the growing availability of purchasable data has challenged conventional understanding of restrictions on law enforcement access.

Recent reports have revealed that the Department of Homeland Security, for example, has acquired movement data from millions of phones for monitoring people’s movements near the U.S. border and certain removal operations without obtaining a warrant. Additionally, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy and civil liberties advocacy group, obtained public records showing that location data is increasingly being provided to state and local police departments. One vendor catering to law enforcement claims to have access to the location of 250 million devices in the United States, although the data often contains significant gaps.