Your Smartphone Can Now Be Used To Track You Without A Warrant

    August 15, 2012
    Zach Walton
    Comments are off for this post.

Warrants are an important part of the legal process in this country. If the police want to search your house, they must obtain a warrant from a judge. New technology like social media and smartphones are not as strictly defined by the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately, it leads to problems.

Ars Technica is reporting that the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that police can track people via their smartphones without a warrant. What would cause them to rule in favor of warrantless tracking? The court says that it’s because you gladly share your location via smartphones.

The case in question involved a drug runner named Melvin Skinner. The police used his GPS location information to track and arrest him. Skinner’s defense says that the police were in violation of the Fourth Amendment because they needed a warrant to see that data. One of the judges in the case, John Rogers, wasn’t buying it. Here’s what he wrote in the majority opinion:

“There is no Fourth Amendment violation because Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his voluntarily procured pay-as-you-go cell phone. If a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal.”

By the court’s logic, it was Skinner’s fault that he was caught. He essentially handed the police his location via his smartphone and the police could track it very easily. Simple, right? Unfortunately, nothing in this world is ever so simple.

It turns out that the police were able to track him thanks to the Stored Communications Act. The law does not allow law enforcement to listen in on conversations, but it does allow them to see where calls are being directed. This lets them know, via GPS tracking, where a person is.

What about the case earlier this year concerning the warrantless GPS tracking of cars? The Supreme Court knocked that one down. The Appeals Court said that Skinner could be tracked because obtaining his GPS data was not a “physical intrusion.”

Does this mean that police can now start tracking you via your smartphone whenever they want? Not really. It does, however, raise the question of what role the Fourth Amendment should play in the 21st centry. It’s obvious that we need to amend laws, and maybe even the Constitution, to address concerns of the modern age. Skinner’s case is just another catalyst that may or may not enact that change.

  • Robert Grimshaw

    If you have a cell phone, license plate or credit card you can be tracked. Whether you like it or not it’s gonna happen. If some private multi billion dollar company wants to sell your tracking data, they will. They simply have the laws changed to say they can do it. Police hope to be able to track every body. They seem to think if they are subtle about it then it’s OK. In Canada, the RCMP just applied for permission to record every license number of every car on any road they choose. Do I want some drone knowing I went to the Mall at 2:15 PM. then drove back to my house at 4:32? Should I care? Should you?
    Will it make me safer? Can the Police track criminals more effectively? Why not implant a tracking bug in every newborns shoulder blade? Then install location readers on every cell tower. In sixty to seventy years massive computer databanks can tell where every person was every moment of their lives. Talk about a fool proof alibi. Or explain to the Police why your transponder just happened to be at the teller window just at the moment she was robbed.
    Too Orwellian for you. Well, like it or not it’s going to happen. John Q. Public will not protest as long as it’s being done quietly, subtly just like old George Orwell said.

  • Nancy Ford

    Not trying to be a nit picker, but the Constitution can be amended but never rewritten. And most changes affect the interpretation of the law only. The author does, however, make a great point. Technological advances force a re-evaluation of privacy laws.

    • http://www.webpronews.com/author/zach-walton Zach Walton

      Thanks for nitpicking! I meant to say amend. Not sure why I used the term rewrite.