Police Tracking Your Phone? Judiciary Intervenes

A normal boring day, when dull-eyed customers come to the bank for their financial transactions they are shaken by the piercing sounds of a gunshot. An armed robbery heist is on. The thieves manage a daredevil maneuver and escape even before the police are informed. The case drags on for weeks until an officer has an epiphany and decides to track the suspect’s phone on the day of the heist. The trace hits a 100% match that shows a suspect’s cellphone in the vicinity of the robbery. This familiar scene carried across multiple movie plots may soon see a judicial intervention.

In the age of cloud and data sharing there already are debates about the real ownership of data. Moreover the question of third parties accessing people’s private data has already raised security concerns for many citizens. There are very few laws that guide the governmental agencies in accessing people’s computers, phones and other digital devices that contain personal information. Citizens have argued that the fourth Amendment protects individuals from unwanted governmental searches and seizures and that this protection covers their devices.

The Supreme Court will consider this week whether police need warrants to review mobile phone tower records that help police agencies track the location of criminal suspects. The laws regarding a warrant to track a phone vary from state to state. Places that require no warrants whatsoever to track individuals’ phones are Texas, Mississippi and Georgia, among others.  The States that have warrants required for all cell phone location information include Utah, California, Virginia, Massachusetts and Montana. In states like Alaska, Washington and Arizona the case is pending with the courts.

While the houses of Congress have not discussed this matter, many states have some privacy protection for their citizens. The most relevant Supreme Court case dealing with such issues is nearly 40 years old. The privacy laws have not kept up with advances in technology. Therefore, the police have claimed the authority to track people’s cellphones without warrant.

Quartavious Davis was convicted of robbery and possession of firearms in 2013 after investigators obtained 67 days of his cell records from MetroPCS. When the case was appealed to the 11th US Circuit of Court of Appeals on the grounds of Fourth Amendment violation the court ruled with a 9-2 vote that the cell towers records concerned Davis but that they did not belong to him because they were created by a third party. Therefore Davis did not have a right to privacy around that information.

But the two dissenting judges criticized the “third party doctrine” arguing that the government would have ground to expand its searching capabilities without warrants in the future. Google collects information about its users which include names, email addresses, cell numbers, credit card data, devices used and location-this information could be considered “third party data” in the future meaning that Google users wouldn’t have a right to privacy in that data.

Spokespersons from the American Civil Liberties Union have argued “Because cell phone location records can reveal countless private details of our lives, people should only be able to access them by getting a warrant based on probable cause.” While the security agencies rely on phone operators to provide details by arguing that they have ‘probable suspicion’, the court will decide if they need permission before doing that. Let’s hope that the judicial intervention will respect the people’s fourth Amendment and put an end to 24/7 surveillance. A new day of positional right to privacy may be looming on the horizon.

Jon Buck
Jon Buck
Jon Buck is based in Delhi, India. He enjoys researching, analyzing, and commenting on the cutting edge of the technology world, as well as palak paneer with veg fried rice.

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