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Portal Direito da Comunicação

Portal Direito da Comunicação


United States GPS Bill – Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act

por Ericson Scorsim

nov 26, 2020

Ericson Scorsim. Lawyer and Consultant in Communication Law. Ph.D. in Law from the University of São Paulo (USP). Author of the Communications Law Collection

            The United States Department of Defense created the Global Positioning System (GPS). Its primary purpose is to ensure geolocation information of people, objects, and vehicles, among others. To this day, it’s under the supervision of the US Department of Defense and Air Force.  However, the technology is also authorized for civilian use.[1] Despite the civilian and military benefits of GPS, it is one of the technologies symbolizing the era of electronic surveillance by governments and companies. It is one of the most invasive, as it provides real-time information on the location of people.  Thus, the master technology in real-time data collection by telecommunication networks is a technology considered dual-use, civil and military. We highlight that GPS has numerous applications in the economy: transport (vehicle and cargo tracking), commerce (consumer geolocation for commercial advertising purposes), air navigation, maritime transport (ship navigation), precision agriculture, geosensoring, space, railways, mapping, environmental services, public safety, among others.  For example, agricultural machinery has a GPS system. Without connectivity, however, this agricultural equipment cannot connect to the Internet network.  The GPS system is fully compatible with mobile telecommunications infrastructures by mobile phones. The US Air Force has projects to advance the efficiency of GPS and mobile-cellular networks. Thus, any mobile phone on the globe may be located by GPS. In this aspect, GPS technology is very relevant in intelligence signals collection by the US government. It serves as a tool in military operations in times of war.

            The geolocation system is based on satellite telecommunications infrastructure distributed around the globe. There is currently a constellation of 33 (thirty-three) satellites scattered around the globe that guarantee GPS operation. There is a GPS antenna on Ascension Island, located in the Atlantic, that can collect intelligence signals in the region. 

            There are several bills on GPS. One of them is the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act – GPS Act.[2] There are rules on interception and dissemination of geolocation information. Also, the bill prohibits the use of geolocation information as evidence. Moreover, it provides for accountability in case of civil damage by interception, disclosure, or violation of geolocation information. Also, there is a rule on fraud to obtain geolocation information.

            But what is the reason for this bill? The US investigating authorities often use technology to obtain information on crime suspects’ geolocation movements, sometimes even without a court order allowing that. There was a case taken to the Courts regarding the deployment of a GPS vehicle tracking system to monitor a crime suspect’s movements. There have been abuses in the use of GPS that have motivated civil rights entities to seek the setting of legal limits, to protect the privacy and security of US citizens.[3]

            In another case, the law enforcement authorities adopted software that simulates the signal from cell phone towers to intercept communications without a court order, which led to the case’s judicialization.[4]

            The bill referenced above deals with the limits on deploying satellite signal reception stations in United States territory by foreign governments. The purpose of the rule is to control access to GPS technology by governments from other countries.

            On the other hand, the Fiscal Year 2019 bill provides that funds related to the transport sector cannot be used to finance GPS tracking of passengers in motor vehicles. Thus, the measure seeks to establish parameters for the privacy of US citizens.

            The US National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 proposes creating a prototype global satellite navigation program capable of receiving signals to expand the resilience capacity of military positions. These are the systems of countries allied to the US GPS: the European Union’s Galileo system, Japan’s GZSS, India’s Navic. The United Kingdom is studying the creation of its own satellite navigation system. Systems not aligned with the United States: Russia’s GLONASS and China’s Beidou.

            Brazil does not have its own satellite positioning system. Thus, it is a mere user of the United States GPS. Therefore, there are geopolitical risks for Brazil in the adoption of US GPS technology.  Note that the United States has the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the interception of foreign communications.  In this aspect, to protect Brazil’s national defense of and the confidentiality of Brazilian mobile telecommunications networks’ communications, the Brazilian authorities must act more effectively to protect Brazilians’ communications against the risk of interception by foreign authorities.

            A report from Homeland Security to the United States Congress explains that the loss of the GPS signal implies serious damage to the US economy. Thirty days without a GPS signal could cost the US economy $1 billion a day.[5]

With 5G and IoT technology, there are increased risks of GPS monitoring invading individuals’ and companies’ privacy and cyber-attacks on mobile telecommunication networks. Therefore, legislators must act to protect personal and non-personal data.

            GPS technology undoubtedly holds numerous economic utilities. There is valuable information in mobile telecommunications networks. However, this technology deals with personal data related to the geolocation of people. It is the symbol technology of business and state and electronic hypervigilance, including real-time data collection.  There are also risks of cyber attacks on mobile telecommunications networks. Therefore, the protection of privacy and confidentiality of communications and personal data security related to geolocation is a significant factor to be considered by Brazilian legislators and Anatel, the agency responsible for the telecommunications sector.               

[1] www.gps.gov

[2] The Geolocation Bill reads:  “geolocation information” means with respect to a person, any information that is not the content of a communication, concerning the location of a wireless communication device or tracking device (as defined in section 3177) that, in whole or in part, is generated by or derived from the operation of that device and that could be used to  determine or infer information regarding the location of the person”.

[3]On this topic, see: Farivar, Cyrus. Habeas Data. Privacy the rise of surveillance tech. New York: Melville Publishing, 2018.

[4] Habeas data, privacy the rise of surveillance tech, work cited, p. 174.

[5] Homeland Security. Report on Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Backup and Complementary Capabilities to the Global Positioning System (GPS). National Defense Authorization Act Fiscal Year 2017 Report to Congress: PNT Requirements, and Analysis of Alternatives, April, 8, 2020.