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Federal Courts Rule Police Don’t Need a Warrant to Access Cell Phone Location Data

Uncle Sam wants to know where you were last night.

What’s that you say? None of his business?

Well, according to the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals it most certainly is.

In a 12-3 ruling issued last week, the court held police do not need a warrant to access cell phone location data held by third party carriers. In the judges’ opinion, you don’t have any expectation of privacy when you use your cell phone. Essentially, you voluntarily share your location with your mobile phone carrier. As a result, police can obtain that location data from the cell phone company without a warrant and it does not violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable warrantless searches and seizures.

In a Christian Science Monitor op-ed, columnist Sascha Meinrath called it “an astonishing opinion.”

“Basically, according to the court, because the vast majority of us use cellphones and apps that track our locations, we’ve opted out of 4th Amendment privacy protections. Even more alarming, the court’s ruling opens the door for the government to get access to all of our Internet-connected apps and software that have knowledge of our whereabouts. “

As Meinrath points out, calling cell phone use a voluntary disclosure of your location is a bit of a stretch.

“But that reasoning really only make sense if we disclose our geolocation voluntarily. But as anyone who has ever attempted to opt-out of such tracking knows, there’s nothing voluntary about it. In fact, this location tracking is mandatory – extending not just to our smartphones but even to other people’s cellphone and devices. Keep in mind, our devices regularly connect to other phones, computers, and cars to collect their location and data.”

I can’t overstate the threat to privacy inherent in location tracking. Head to the porno shop to check out some videos? Uncle Sam has a right to know. Show up at a Black Lives Matter or Trump rally? Uncle Sam has a right to know. Talk to somebody the government suspects of doing something nefarious? Uncle Sam has a right to know. And by they way, now you’re implicated.

Just stop and think about all the places you’ve been just in the last few days and what it reveals about your life. As a CNN report put it back in 2013, your location information creates a sort of “GPS Fingerprint.”

“With nothing more than this anonymous location data, someone who wanted to badly enough could easily figure out who you are by tracking your smartphone. Patterns of our movements, when traced on a map, create something akin to a fingerprint that is unique to every person…For the study, the research team studied 15 months of anonymous mobile data for roughly 1.5 million people. What they found was that, if they got accurate hourly updates on a person’s whereabouts, tracked by their mobile carrier’s cell towers, four ‘data points’ were all they needed to figure out the person’s identity 95% of the time.”

This represents yet another example of federal courts failing to protect your rights and rein in government power.

Fortunately, we can still fight back against warranltess location tracking. No matter what the courts say, states can still require police to get a warrant before obtaining location data.  Click HERE for model legislation.