Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

Summary: Should investigators be required to get a search warrant before extracting your location data from your cellular phone? New ruling says... sorta.

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Like most modern Americans, I am generally never more than an arm's-length reach from my cellular phone. That means there's often a very high correlation between the location of a cell phone and the location of its owner.

Government investigators have apparently found this correlation quite valuable, and have engaged in a number of cases where they used cell phone location data to track and/or prosecute American citizens.

The interesting issue here is whether the government had the right to get at that data. The feds contended that since location data is normally held at the carrier, citizens don't have an expectation of privacy with regard to location.

Rather than seeking a judge's permission to get at the data, the equivalent of asking for a search warrant, law enforcement officials merely demanded phone location data from carriers and were given it.

The implications for privacy and due process are clearly apparent.

See also: I just want to give the EFF a great, big smootchy-smootch!

Our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation were all over the cell phone tracking debate, and yesterday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled courts may require search warrants for cell phone location records.

This is a huge win for privacy advocates.

Now, to be clear, this ruling doesn't say the courts MUST require warrants, but it does -- at least -- give judges the option if they feel it's, um, warranted.

Good job, EFF!

What does your phone know about you that you wouldn't want anyone to know about? Tell all below!

Topics: Telcos, Hardware, Mobility

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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24 comments
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  • Rural hicks are safe

    One of the advantages of living in an area with spotty cell phone coverage is that apparently I'm safe from tracking (the phone is off 80% of the time - and only used for trips into the city - when we remember it.)

    Us rural hicks have are lucky.

    Also, being Canadian - this court case doesn't affect me. However, I wish I knew what the laws were here... I'll have to do some research to see if I can post a smug follow up post, 'cause I don't know that we can be smug about this... hmmm...
    snberk341
  • They've been doing this for years

    The phone companies eventually mandated charging the government for this data, after which much tracking dropped off.
    The thing to do if you ever go someplace you don't want known, is either remove the battery from the phone or don't take the phone with you at all.
    If the government thinks they're going to get anything salacious from my phone, I want to wish them luck.
    HollywoodDog
    • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

      @HollywoodDog commented, "The thing to do if you ever go someplace you don't want known, is either remove the battery from the phone or don't take the phone with you at all."

      Do you have some evidence the phone can be turned on or its location accessed when it is shut off? I'm thinking that if the power is off to its receiver circuitry there's no way to remotely turn it on or access anything.

      Evidence?
      EdinPeoria
      • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

        @EdinPeoria

        I have to agree with HollywoodDog, the safest computer is one that is not connected to the internet longer than necessary; and when it is connected, has a firewall in place.

        I would extend that concept to cell phones.

        Either:

        1) don't use one at all (that's me)
        2) don't use one with GPS activated
        3) don't leave the battery connected in you must carry it with you.

        I mean, why make it easier for the cops. The next thing they will want to do is stick an RFID chip in all of us. OK, MR congressman, YOU first; and I have the best place to stick that RFID chip. Would you care to venture a guess where that may be?
        fatman65535
      • I don't know what "shut off" means.

        @EdinPeoria ... When I push the button that ostensibly powers the phone off, it goes down and the screen goes dark. Does that mean it's totally dead? I don't know, probably. That's the point. Without the battery, I feel reasonably safe it's dead.
        Not knowing whether the phone is in the possession of its owner is a good thing. You can leave it on and at home, and not be at home.
        HollywoodDog
      • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to

        @EdinPeoria
        If I did not take the phone with me how would they find me? Believe me, I will try to always have it on me.
        Gpa's
  • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

    I have my Verizon phone's location services configured for "E911 Only." I'm curious to know if that affords me any privacy vs the "Location on" setting (which was my intent). I strongly believe that the government should be required to get a search warrant before being given this kind of information.
    ken@...
    • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

      @ken@...

      Nope. The Location On setting is referring to the ability of 3rd party applications (e.g. a navigation/mapping app) to get access to the GPS function on the phone. The carrier can always ping your phone to determine where you are. It's generally used for E911/emergency uses but there's nothing in the protocol (that I'm aware of) that enforces any kind of check to see that you, you know, placed an emergency call. Even if you didn't have GPS in your phone (say it was an older phone) the carriers know roughly where you are at any given time just based on the cell tower that you're connected to. Of course that assumes you leave your phone on, which some people of course don't, but the VAST majority of people do, which is why this is an important initial ruling.
      PW123987
      • Funny about that - imagine most wanting to receive calls?

        @PW123987
        I don't get how some respondents suggest that we just turn off our phones.

        Most people want to be able to receive calls, especially those whose livehoods depend upon it.

        After all, they are 'phones', though that seems to get overlooked a lot in all the discussion about smartphones.

        It does not help if the phone is switched off.
        Patanjali
    • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

      @ken@...

      I highly doubt it. I believe that setting applies only to software on the phone, such as VZ navigator. I guarantee Verizon themselves would know where you are simply because they are providing you with service.

      I know the-carrier-formerly-known-as-Cingular fulfilled MANY unwarranted requests. Sprint was asked a large amount recently that I read about on EFF.org and I don't know what came about from that. Not sure about Verizon.
      midenginedrift
      • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to

        @midenginedrift It is stupid for a law enforcer to have to get a court order to locate a cell phone. Why do the innocent have to pay the price for the druthers of the paranoids. If the feds need to know where I am, I want them to know now, not wasting time on an order.
        Gpa's
    • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to

      @ken@... If one is so paranoid you should see a doctor. Everyone should appreciate the added safety that cell phones provide about your location. Why wouldn't you want your location to be known, unless you got something to hide. In that case let it out, it isn't healthy.
      Gpa's
  • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

    Its the BIG BAD GOV'T....They can find anything on anyone if they so want!! and we the citizens of the U.S.A. NO LONGER HAVE ANY FREEDOMS OF PRIVACY unless you of course choose to LIVE OFF THE GRID such as JOHN CONNER in the Terminator movies!!!!!!

    Not such a bad idea these days!
    jasonemmg
    • Oh yeah, because I am sure the gov't is out to get you.

      @jasonemmg... ;)
      Snooki_smoosh_smoosh
      • It's not about that

        @JM1981 ... the more of this kind of data there is that is easily obtained, the more that bored employees will sit around looking through it.
        I know someone who worked for a phone carrier once who told me that when they were bored they'd search randomly through people's SMS messages looking for anything entertaining. The government does that too.
        Remember the woman who was fired from her government job because as soon as 'Joe The Plumber' became news, searched through all his tax records?
        Who guards the guards? To an extent, you do.
        HollywoodDog
    • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to

      @jasonemmg What you need is to work on replacing the Big Bad Gov't with Good Government officials so they can protect your freedoms and privacy. Cheez. You say the lady got fired about the tax records. Great. There was nothing there anyway because Joe had done the right thing and was not ashamed of it. The moral; do the right thing and no problems.
      Gpa's
  • Limiting federal snooping

    is a win for the country. Eliminating 90% of the federal government would be an even bigger one.
    klumper
    • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

      @klumper
      It's probably too late for America. But if you really believe what you say, then Somalia might be a place you'd enjoy. No government, no taxes, an Ayn-Randian paradise.
      yonian
      • You need an arithmetic tutor

        @yonian

        Eliminating 90% of the federal socialism (read: waste) that sucks this country dry does not equate to no government. Even a Somalian could do that math, something you couldn't. Congrats.
        klumper
  • RE: Court rules your cellphone may not have to give up its location data to the feds

    So kids, the lesson is if you're going to do something bad, make sure to give your phone to a friend and have them go somewhere else so that your allaby looks real.
    skelden