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Gov. Can Now Track Your Phones Without Warrant

By - Source: Tom's Guide US | B 87 comments

A new ruling says that--in most cases--government and law agencies don't need a search warrant to track cell phones.

Tuesday a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled that--in most cases--the FBI and other police agencies do not need a search warrant in order to track the location of cell phones used by Americans.

The three-judge panel of the Third Circuit sided with the Obama Administration (pdf) in the belief that a signed search warrant--one based on a probable cause to suspect criminal activity--isn't necessary when obtaining logs from wireless carriers that depict the whereabouts of a cell phone.

However the panel also sided with civil-liberties groups and decided that, in some cases, investigators will still need to obtain a search warrant from the lower courts to avoid potentially unconstitutional seizures of location data. The court said that this option would be used "sparingly."

Currently there's still a debate on whether the Fourth Amendment applies to phone records. "This decision does not definitively answer the question of the Fourth Amendment status of cell phone [location records]," said Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Kevin Bankston.

Controversy surrounding the original drug-related case sparked when U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Lenihan said that the Justice Department could not obtain stored location data without a search warrant, citing federal privacy laws. Lenihan demanded that the Justice Department show probable cause.

The Obama Administration retaliated, indicating that warrantless tracking was permissible because Americans enjoy no "reasonable expectation of privacy" in their location--or at least in regards to cell phone use. The Administration said that it only needs a 2703(d) order to obtain the information--this requires law officials to show that the records are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

For the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other privacy groups, the ruling is seen as a victory because some cases will still require a warrant. "Although the court did not definitively rule on the Fourth Amendment status of cell phone location information, it made clear that under some circumstances the privacy of such data could be constitutionally protected, and that judges have the discretion to require a warrant to avoid potentially unconstitutional seizures of location data," Bankston said.

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Top Comments
  • 28 Hide
    jellico , September 8, 2010 6:00 PM
    coopchennickIt's surprising what Obama will do and that we accept it just because he's Obama.

    Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. When President Bush signed intrusive legislation into laws, or issued executive orders which undermined privacy and freedoms, most people pitched a major fit... and rightfully so. Now that Obama is in power, you would think the first thing he would do is repeal or reverse some of that... nope! In fact, he's keeping those laws/orders in place and adding many of his own. At least with Bush, the intent of the laws was to gain intelligence on suspected terrorists (even though that could be easily abused). With Obama, it seems any and all Americans are fair game.
  • 23 Hide
    tommysch , September 8, 2010 6:06 PM
    Grab your guns, they don't have any tracking device embedded.
  • 23 Hide
    reddragon72 , September 8, 2010 5:57 PM
    This rates right there with your IP addy and traffic cams. I believe that none of those, including cell phone, can be used against you for any reason as there is no clear way to prove that you were present with the phone. It is all circumstantial evidence and if I were a judge I would throw it out do to the fact that nothing proves YOU were there. It's pretty easy to sneak into someones house steal there car keys and then perform some crime then drop the car back off without you ever knowing it. Can you be held liable? yes, why? it's your vehicle that was seen so therefor you must have done the crime. Is it your cellphone? yes. was it at the scene of the crime? yes. then you must be guilty. WRONG!!!! it's to easy to frame someone on that premise alone, and therefor should not be submittable in court.
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  • 6 Hide
    mojito_619 , September 8, 2010 5:43 PM
    Um... I bet some didn't have a warrant before this law.
  • 21 Hide
    coopchennick , September 8, 2010 5:53 PM
    It's surprising what Obama will do and that we accept it just because he's Obama.
  • 23 Hide
    reddragon72 , September 8, 2010 5:57 PM
    This rates right there with your IP addy and traffic cams. I believe that none of those, including cell phone, can be used against you for any reason as there is no clear way to prove that you were present with the phone. It is all circumstantial evidence and if I were a judge I would throw it out do to the fact that nothing proves YOU were there. It's pretty easy to sneak into someones house steal there car keys and then perform some crime then drop the car back off without you ever knowing it. Can you be held liable? yes, why? it's your vehicle that was seen so therefor you must have done the crime. Is it your cellphone? yes. was it at the scene of the crime? yes. then you must be guilty. WRONG!!!! it's to easy to frame someone on that premise alone, and therefor should not be submittable in court.
  • 13 Hide
    gnice3d , September 8, 2010 6:00 PM
    Big brother is here.. Well, he's been here but now they are making it all legal.
    Obama is selling out the American people like every other president in the last 30-40 years.

    They should just change "president" to super-ceo
  • 28 Hide
    jellico , September 8, 2010 6:00 PM
    coopchennickIt's surprising what Obama will do and that we accept it just because he's Obama.

    Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. When President Bush signed intrusive legislation into laws, or issued executive orders which undermined privacy and freedoms, most people pitched a major fit... and rightfully so. Now that Obama is in power, you would think the first thing he would do is repeal or reverse some of that... nope! In fact, he's keeping those laws/orders in place and adding many of his own. At least with Bush, the intent of the laws was to gain intelligence on suspected terrorists (even though that could be easily abused). With Obama, it seems any and all Americans are fair game.
  • 21 Hide
    maestintaolius , September 8, 2010 6:01 PM
    coopchennickIt's surprising what Obama will do and that we accept it just because he's Obama.

    Bush pulled the exact same crap with his warrantless wiretaps. Both parties suck and it angers me greatly that the only 'major' parties outside of those two are either ridiculously right wing bible-bangers who want to use gov't to enforce their flavor of morality or stoned out treehuggin hippies who don't want anyone to make a buck (and my poor libertarian party isn't even on the radar).
  • 20 Hide
    angelraiter , September 8, 2010 6:04 PM
    Land of the free? Really? First the Patriot Act, now this, how about we just call it what it is and burn the Constitution, at least that way people know the true nature of the Leviathan governing them.
  • 9 Hide
    insider3 , September 8, 2010 6:06 PM
    I'm pretty sure this was going on for a long time.
  • 23 Hide
    tommysch , September 8, 2010 6:06 PM
    Grab your guns, they don't have any tracking device embedded.
  • 8 Hide
    jerreece , September 8, 2010 6:08 PM
    You'd have thought, that as tired of George W. Bush most Americans had gotten by the end of his term, that any other president would have been different. Obama talked all about change. Unfortunately, he's followed in Bush's footsteps when it comes to social protection. We've seen more and more destruction of privacy rights.

    I'm not a conspiracy theorist, and in fact used to be in law enforcement myself. So I can see how this ruling can serve local law enforcement.

    However, let's think about this. A judge is no longer required to test why law enforcement wants your phone location data (and to ensure they have proper probably cause to obtain it). All new cell phones are now required to have e911 GPS capability (presumably so 911 operators can locate you if you are unable to verbally give your location). So in some sense, if you own a cell phone you could be tracked at all times.

    Now, I'm not going to say we're all being tracked constantly. I honestly don't think the government really gives a crap at this point. However, your phone can be tracked. Look at all the add-on cell phone services that allow you to monitor your kids based on their cell phone location.

    The Patriot Act started it all from a legal perspective.
  • 15 Hide
    tommysch , September 8, 2010 6:10 PM
    SabiancymCue right wing nutjob conspiracy theory.....now.


    This has nothing to do with right vs left! Every administration is as bad as the last when spying on our ass is concerned. Bush was just as bad. You want CCTV cams everywhere? Thats not a far fetched conspiracy, its happening in the UK right now.
  • 5 Hide
    Xatos , September 8, 2010 6:12 PM
    Wait I thought it was big bad Bush and all the republicans who stole our privacy? No wait, liberals are just naive morons.
  • 5 Hide
    Ciuy , September 8, 2010 6:13 PM
    huh? sucks being in America right now ....
  • -8 Hide
    Sabiancym , September 8, 2010 6:15 PM
    Tracking =\= listening. The logic is sound. If it's not illegal for a cop to follow you around in public, it shouldn't be illegal for them to follow your phone signal.


    This isn't wire tapping, no personal info is being exposed. It's the same as having security cameras.
  • 8 Hide
    nforce4max , September 8, 2010 6:16 PM
    This is why I don't own one and that I am cheap. I hate the damn things any way and people that are on them all day annoy me. Mind you this is coming from a 20 year old gamer and not from someone who is much older. I hate how people drive while 'texting" they are worse than drunkers.
  • 1 Hide
    rajangel , September 8, 2010 6:16 PM
    This is why I don't own a cell phone!
  • 18 Hide
    korsen , September 8, 2010 6:18 PM
    We're actually (glad to be) leaving the country soon. It's just getting ridiculous around here with corruption and politics and media that just never seems to go away. Obama is a chump.
  • 3 Hide
    kooltime , September 8, 2010 6:18 PM
    Do they mean the GPS feature of location for cell phones or, where the phone address is listed to owner ?? If they have a phone number they can just look that up in the directory, for address anyways, if they are talking about taking and or listening to phone conversations, that would deffinately be a breach of the 4th amend privacy rules, without probable cause.

    Some phones dont have gps but they can be tracked via the carriers to which towers are sending receiving calls in a given area for that phone.

    What do cell phones have to do with drug trafficking any ways ?? Anyone doing illegal things and stupid enough to use their own phone for it deserves to be caught anyways. ( Like saying lets do a bank heist and well use are own personal vehicle(s) as the getaway car - lol ).

    I mean seriously every phone call is 2 telephone numbers transaction, and those numbers are "KNOWN" whom bought the service number and where its registered and installed to. Each call is timed land or cell as well so you get a bill for it, so every call is already traceable, and where its at.

    For cell phones, using gps tower tracking what tower is closest to and sending that cell device a call, is pretty much all the info they can get, and or the GPS part of the phone, if the carrier has access to those phone functions to gps track it, new phones have it older models many dont.

    As for listening to phone coversations is a whole different story, that would need to be addresses. As probable casue would be needed then for that privacy rights. If they can just listen to anyones phone calls whenever they want unrestricted, then phone calls also to be used agaist them in court for that with no probable cause, then phones cell or land line would be consider public item not, private, and usage would dramatically change.

    More would opt for encrypted voip or other forms if they could tap into you phone call any time they please un warranted, and listen use any conversations against someone in court.

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