Cell Phone Tracking Without Warrant Illegal, Rules Court

This week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that any data the government wants to gather off a cellphone must first be approved in full by a warrant before any officer of the law gets the opportunity to track valuable information.

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Photo: Mopic / Shutterstock

In a landmark decision this Wednesday in Miami, Judge David Sentelle has ruled that any investigations which require the use of information pulled from cell phone towers or physically pulled off a phone during a traffic stop will be rendered inadmissible unless a warrant has been obtained and approved.

The move, which only applies to the greater Miami area for the time being, will hopefully set the stage for more sweeping legislation at the federal level, and slowly stem the tide of erosion our privacy rights have faced in our paranoid, post-9/11 world.

“The American Civil Liberties Union has said that the decision is a “resounding defense of the Fourth Amendment’s continuing vitality in the digital age.”

“This opinion puts police on notice that when they want to enlist people’s cell phones as tracking devices, they must get a warrant from a judge based on probable cause. The court soundly repudiates the government’s argument that by merely using cell a phone, people somehow surrender their privacy rights,” Freed Wessler, who argued the case, was quoted in a statement.

For years local and federal police have had the ability to pull location data, timestamps, and metadata off of cellphone towers.

Normally these tactics are deployed to pinpoint someone at the scene of a crime or present stable evidence suggesting they were communicating with a person responsible for another crime, but as of late their use has become so prevalent that precincts have lost control and can’t keep track of what is and isn’t being gathered in a lawful or even honorable manner.

And while police forces in and outside of the states have been granted the privilege to essentially do whatever they like with this data in or out of the courtroom, hundreds of cases have flown through the system on the back of information which was freely being handed out by wireless carriers who had no other option than to comply with the “law”, or face the judge themselves if they tried to resist.

Perhaps more important than the ruling itself was the language Sentelle used when describing why he came to the decision he did. It shows someone who is cognizant of how out of control the surveillance state in this country has become, and realizes the power that his place in the system has to make an effort to stop it.

“One’s cell phone, unlike an automobile, can accompany its owner anywhere. Thus, the exposure of the cell site location information can convert what would otherwise be a private event into a public one,” Sentelle writes. “In that sense, cell site data is more like communications data than it is like GPS information.

That is, it is private in nature rather than being public data that warrants privacy protection only when its collection creates a sufficient mosaic to expose that which would otherwise be private.”