Police Don’t Need A Warrant To Find Out Where You — And Your Cellphone — Go

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A Federal appeals court in Texas has ruled that law enforcement can obtain from cellphone service providers the geolocation data that pinpoints the physical movements of individual users over time without first obtaining a search warrant.

The ruling, handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, drew immediate condemnation from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The 5th Circuit holds jurisdiction over appeals cases originating in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Tuesday’s ruling was meant to clarify whether the 4th Amendment protects warrantless people-tracking based on data held privately by companies paid to provide a service to private individuals. In a 2-1 ruling, the Court found that such searches by law enforcement weren’t “per se unconstitutional” since the data was “clearly a business record” and, therefore, doesn’t fall under 4th Amendment protection.

Note from the Editor: Under the Obama Administration, the NSA, the IRS, and the State and Justice departments are blatantly stepping on Americans’ privacy—and these are just the breaches we’re aware of. I’ve arranged for readers to get a free copy of The Ultimate Privacy Guide so you can be protected from any form of surveillance by anyone—government, corporate or criminal. Click here for your free copy.

The ACLU condemned that perverse interpretation in a long rebuttal, released the day of the ruling. Here’s a portion:

It has long been our position that the government must obtain a warrant based on probable cause before engaging in surveillance of people’s historical cell phone location information. Today, our efforts were dealt a setback. Over a strong dissent, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy over their location data. According to the court, law enforcement agents do not need to obtain a warrant to get this information, ruling instead that a less protective standard suffices.

This ruling is troubling because, as we and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argued, only a warrant standard fully protects Americans’ privacy interests in their locations and movements over time. Cell phone companies store records on where each of us have been, often stretching back for years. That location information is sensitive and can reveal a great deal — what doctors people visit, where they spend the night, who their friends are, and where they worship. Given the sensitivity of these facts, law enforcement agents should have to demonstrate to a judge that they have a good reason to believe that they will turn up evidence of wrongdoing before gaining access to information that can paint a detailed picture of where a person has been over time.

The Fifth Circuit did not accept this argument. It concludes that because historical cell phone location records are the business records of cell phone companies, individuals can have no reasonable expectation of privacy in them — and therefore no Fourth Amendment protections.

…This reasoning, generally referred to has the “third-party doctrine” (according to which you don’t have a privacy expectation in any information turned over to a third party), was developed decades ago, long before cell phones were common, the use email was widespread, or the general public had heard of the Internet. It’s not compatible with the ease with which digital technologies collect data about each of us today.

Indeed, cellphone companies easily track and store data on where you’ve been with your phone. A 2010 petition organized by the ACLU yielded an information sheet from the U.S. Department of Justice revealing that Verizon holds onto such information for one “rolling” year, while Sprint hangs onto users’ geolocation data for 18 to 24 months.

“There is no cell phone company that doesn’t retain historical cell site location data, or even one that keeps it only for a short time. And anyway, our Fourth Amendment rights should not depend on the largesse of for-profit corporations,” the civil liberties watchdog concluded.

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.

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  • Harold Olsen

    Everything the Obama regime does steps on our constitutional rights. As far as these Nazis (Obama, Holder, the NSA, the IRS, etc) are concerned, there is no US Constitution and we have no constitutional rights.

    • chocopot

      “As far as these Nazis (Obama, Holder, the NSA, the IRS, etc) are concerned, there is no US Constitution and we have no constitutional rights.”
      And the worst is yet to come…

      • chris

        I think america is finally getting wise to these liars &crooks

        • chocopot

          One can only hope…

    • Jake Thomas

      You mention the Obama regime – you should have gone a little further in your statement. Matter of fact, instead of Obama and his regime, you could have just said “The Democrat and Republican parties.”

  • IsThisAmerica

    I don’t use my cell phone very much. It’s only for emergencies. But I still say they have no right to intrude on anyones privacy. That includes my email, or where I go and what I do on the internet. I can’t believe they are getting away with this crap. Keep telling us what they are doing Snowden! They will keep denying everything because they are liars!

  • mbfromwv

    Keep your old StarTac or older non-GPS CDMA phone going….older phones contain no GPS, no pinpoint location…cell tower gets snoopers no closer than a mile at best….or disable the GPS on your phone….

    • FreedomFighter

      Ditch the phone altogether, or buy of those disposables take the battery out — use for emergency only. You don’t need a cell phone for your private life, you have a brain use it.
      If required by work to have a cell phone do the above and disable the GPS — best to get rid of it, if you can.
      Laus Deo
      Semper FI

  • AMERICAN PATRIOT

    Since the GPS enabled phones have internal antennas designed for the ‘L’ band GPS signal, REMOVE this antenna to cripple the GPS module in your phone.
    I have an older Droid, and I did this very thing. I located the GPS antenna, and then removed it so the GPS function, didn’t.
    Regardless of what some retarded court says, MY phone will operate in accordance with MY rules, and MY phone will not have a tracker residing in it, to let the world know where I am. NOT in this lifetime folks!

    • Sean Bell

      Unfortunately all you gained was a few yards worth of safety. The GPS signal is more accurate but even without it the companies keep a triangulation record of the towers your phone was between and the azimuths from those towers for an “almost” as accurate location fix. I will give you one guess who told the telecoms that they had to keep this information. Of course it was for our own “safety”, if that doesn’t give away the answer too much on who told them to do it.

      • AMERICAN PATRIOT

        As an electronics engineer, I am very familiar with cell site triangulation. I installed and maintained cell sites with my business for over 20 years, including the later digital iterations we have had, such as GSM for one. EvDo is another. The one factor that never changes, is all cell sites use R.F. The overhead data stream changed, but the method hasn’t, much.
        Triangulation can get you a few miles from the actual location, but many do NOT know how to assign dBm into square feet, regardless of which antenna the measurement was taken.
        Path loss, obstructions and signal level variations all come into play. And every cell site controls the handset. A good signal uplinked to the cell site, the data commands the handset to lower or raise it’s transmit power to make up for the increased signal degradation, or lower, if the noise (QOS) is lower than acceptable for good call quality, again, QOS.
        GPS is used at every cell site, bar none. Even temporary sites utilize GPS timing across the entire network, and not only for location, but also call hand-offs and other esoteric uses within each site. Frequency re-use is also an industry standard.
        I can set up a test and fool every site into ‘thinking’ I was farther away that I really am, and anybody can do this with simple objects in the home or garage. Triangulation only works well, if the playing ‘field’ is level, which it never actually is.
        Peple also fail to realize that micro cells exist, boosters for home and car exist, and all increase the uplink power to the cell site, so triangulation is actually ineffective, and gains little to no benefit to the spies. When you know how to perform workarounds, you can easily defeat the people that wish to know your every move. I prefer to know all about them as well, and I have the tools to make it a reality. We the spied upon, can and must, turn the tables on those that pry into our PRIVATE lives! Our lives are NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS, and I will assist in making this a reality for us!

  • Vivislafter

    always keep GPS off, disabled, only use WIFI rarely, and always turn off when OTR, used to have all toots and whistles, till one day long ago, before all this NSA stuff began, I felt a creepy dark presence, stuff turning on, I did not. radio going whacky when close and on a call, computer blinking when near and it rang! people, this has been going on ever since the computer age, why do you think your web pages are called ”profiles”?? we have been data mined since day one!

  • vicki

    “….the “third-party doctrine” (according to which you don’t have a privacy
    expectation in any information turned over to a third party),…”

    So using this logic there is practically no information that is private. Even traditional mail is in the hands of a third party. What need of the 4th amendment in such a world?