Cell Phone Tracking By Law Enforcement

November 9, 2012 •

Cell Phone Transmitter TowerDid you know that the government can track your location from your cell phone?

Does this violate your rights?

Is it a necessary means to track suspects and carry out justice?

These are all questions that have been raised in the past few months because of recent investigations and court rulings about the government’s right to track a person’s location from their cell phone without the need for a warrant or probable cause.

Court Cases Involving Cell Phone Tracking
One of the more recent cases involves a constitutional challenge in a federal criminal case in California. In this particular case, the FBI used a Stingray, which is a device which acts like a fake cell phone tower to search large areas for a specific cell phone signal. The FBI used the Stingray to locate a man and prosecute him for tax fraud. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the challenge as friends of the court on October 26.

Another case involved the arrest of a drug trafficker by tracking the GPS signal on his cell phone. The defendant argued that the DEA had violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in August that the defendant “did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his … cellphone,” according to the opinion written by Judge Rodgers. Rodgers likened the issue to the use of police dogs to track fugitives, arguing that this would be considered unconstitutional if the fugitive wasn’t aware that the dogs were tracking his scent.

Is Cell Phone Tracking the Same as GPS Tracking on Vehicles?
Some people have made the argument that cell phone tracking is no different than GPS trackers attached to a suspect’s car. In January of 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that police could not use GPS tracking on a car without first obtaining a warrant. The ACLU carried out an investigation to determine how many police departments do obtain warrants for tracking cell phones and found that many do not. Of the 230 local law enforcement agencies they received documents from, only 13 said they had never tracked cell phones. Some said although the practice is quite common, they do sometimes obtain warrants.

What Do You Think? Is Cell Phone Tracking a Violation of Rights or a Means of Carrying Out Justice?
There are two ways to look at this issue: law enforcement is using the technology available to them in order to track down criminals and prosecute them, or the government is violating our Fourth Amendment rights and not respecting citizen privacy. What do you think? We all rely on our phones for many tasks and most of us couldn’t get through the day without our phone in our pockets. But, at what point does the technology we carry become a weapon against us?