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Own a Cell-Phone? Be Prepared to be Tracked

Own a Cell-Phone?  Be Prepared to be Tracked

When you make a call on your cell phone, just how much privacy should you expect to enjoy?  More importantly, does owning a cell phone give the government the right to track your whereabouts, even if it hasn’t shown probable cause to believe it will turn up evidence of a crime?  According to the Department of Justice, the answer to the second question is quite clearly yes.

In a case pending before the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals the Justice Department argues that it need only show “reasonable grounds” to believe that cell phone records are “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation” in order to access them.  The issue illustrates a clash between federal criminal statutes, in this case the Stored Communications Act, and the Fourth Amendment.  Privacy and civil rights advocates are closely watching the case as one that could set the standard for understanding the extent of individual privacy rights in the digital age. 

The issue is not whether or not the government is entitled to cell phone location data, but rather, what legal showing the government must make before getting that information.  In this case federal prosecutors had made a request for cell phone location data in connection with an ongoing investigation into a larger-scale narcotics trafficking and other violent crime.  The location data was necessary, the government argued, because one of the targets of the investigation had used different vehicles and properties to conduct a variety of illegal activities making traditional physical surveillance difficult.

But the lower court had ruled that citizens maintain a reasonable expectation of privacy in those records and use of their cell phone does not suspend that expectation.  So, just like any other search, before the government can access that information it must meet the standard Fourth Amendment probable cause showing.  The government disagreed and appealed the ruling, arguing that it need only meet the lower reasonableness standard.

There is no question that the ability to find, or in the case of the government, track, individuals has come in handy.  And in some cases, cell-phone tracking is entirely lawful and appropriate.  But by suggesting that simply carrying a cell phone makes a person more susceptible to government surveillance the government is putting ordinary citizens in the unfortunate position of having to chose between carrying a cell phone and protecting their everyday whereabouts from the government.

The problem with this case, and similar cases seeking to avoid constitutional privacy protections, is that there is simply no way to protect innocent civilians from unnecessary privacy violations, a problem squarely addressed in the Bill of Rights.  Each intrusion. like the one currently contemplated, erodes our guarantees of individual liberty and grants far more power to the government than intended.  And worst of all, no one is safer as a result. 

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photo courtesy of wanderingone via Flickr

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9:41PM PDT on Apr 5, 2012

Doesn't bother me much as I'm not doing anything wrong but it is a scary step into the future.

7:36PM PST on Feb 6, 2012

Complacency is the death of democracy. People are too used to convenience & false senses of security. People did just fine before the invention of cell phones & would be just fine w/out them again. Hell, people got along fine before TV & regular phones- not that I want to go that far, but... Taking a step or two backwards is preferable to giving up freedom.

11:34AM PST on Jan 20, 2011

Big brother is never sleep...

3:54AM PST on Dec 19, 2010

Tracking? Why do you think the government is giving away so many cell phones? Oh, for the intrinsic benefit and value of being able to individually track every one in the nation!

3:21PM PDT on Aug 7, 2010

First, thank you for writing and posting this. Second, i do think that they are going to try to listen to cell phones of only the people who pose a serious threat to the safety of the U.S.A.
Third; it is a violation of a citizens right to privacy to tap into another persons cell phone calls.
Fourth; if this is happening to ordinary citizens it will not cause any harm; If it is happening to people who are terrorists than the government may have rights?

5:31AM PDT on Jun 26, 2010

There are think-tanks who's job is just to sit there all day and come up with creative ways of convincing the public to accept and even ask for stuff that fits the ruling power's agenda. Every day we are getting played like a violin, while they giggle at our acquiescence.
If we play into their hands it will be 1984 before you know what happened....

10:50AM PST on Feb 18, 2010

interesting. It's like tracking a home phone conversation...

8:57AM PST on Feb 18, 2010

As a way for emergency services to find your exact location, it is really good that cells can be tracked. But it should be strictly regulated so that it is not violated. If an ex-partner can follow the movements of someone they have abused, it is very likely that the result will be loss of life.

I think cell tracking should be used as a tool among others in criminal investigations, but not randomly or with low proof of possible involvement in a crime.

7:59AM PST on Feb 18, 2010

Fear of terrorists, crimes and so on are our worst enemy.
The enemy within....
The "defence" will be our prison.
Time to fight back! You programmers, create and spread new ways to communicate, seriously, we have to build a new kind of internet.
I know this might sound crazy, but soon it´s the only way, while it is still legal... I dont want to sell out my privacy for a
false safety! Go back to goog old snailmail, use mailbirds, do a new phonenet with own cabels. Just do something!

1:22AM PST on Feb 18, 2010

interesting article makes me think of the novel-1984-Big Brother.

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