For The Third Time, No; Gov't May Not Track Citizen Whereabouts Phone Data

from the keep-trying dept

The Justice Department apparently isn’t used to hearing “no” for an answer. For the third time in recent months, apparently, they’ve tried to get permission to track the whereabouts of certain individuals by using data from their mobile phones without first showing probable cause (normally needed for a traditional search warrant). In all three cases, the judges have denied those requests. The government’s argument is a bit scary: “A cell phone user voluntarily transmits a signal to the cell phone company, and thereby ‘assumes the risk’ that the cell phone provider will reveal to law enforcement the cell-site information.” In other words, they’re claiming that by using a mobile phone you should know that the data leaves you open to being tracked, and therefore, it’s no problem at all. The article notes that the DoJ hasn’t appealed any of these decisions, perhaps out of fear that a higher court would definitively slam the door on such tracking measures.

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Comments on “For The Third Time, No; Gov't May Not Track Citizen Whereabouts Phone Data”

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Jason says:

Re: Re: Re: No Subject Given

Sure, GPS could also be exploited as well. But for the case of companies like SPrint/Nextel, Cingular, etc, which uses slightly different technology, they have recently (within the past 2-3 years) been putting in place new equipment, which is co-located with the cell site, which can tell 911 operators (within 20-30 feet-?) where you are exactly. It is by this means, and through triangulation of two-three towers, as well as through the use of new servers added at the cellular switches, this data is sent to an outside company who is responsible for getting this location data to the PSAPS.

Jason says:

Law enforcement tracking cell phones

Their argument is that the cell phones transmit a signal to the cell towers, and that constitutes knowledge, by the user, that their data is trackable…however, this isn’t exactly correct. It shouldn’t be so easily assumed that the data can just be picked up and used. The data transmitted by cell phones, when not in use, would not be enough to track the precise location of someone. The data that would need to be used, which would assist in tracking position of the user, would need to either come from the current 911 system in place for doing just that- but only for 911 calls, or by a whole new set of rules, software, and hardware, put into the network for just this purpose. As it stands now, there is already an ability for one cell phone user to trace another’s movements and positions using applications embedded in the wireless internet (network) given that the “tracked” user gives their permission (via an applicaiton on the handset/via the network). The only other tracking functionality comes from a federal law which requires cell phone providers to show 911 callers’ precise location- but only for that 911 call. Basically, if law enforcement gets their way in this, it will most likely ending up costing cell phone providers a substantial ammount of money to put an entirely new system in place for serving this purpose, or, it would essentially be a mis-use of a funtionality that was forced to be put into place by the government to begin with. Bottom line- the subscribers’ sending of data to the network- in its self- is not enough to be used for the type of tracking and tracing they are asking for, unless yet another burden is placed onto the providers, or unless they are going to use an application on these networks-which would not be there had the government not forced it to be-for somethin other than it was intended for:the SAFETY of the cell phone users.

anonymous says:

No Subject Given

I see. That’s a fantastic argument.

So therefore, when I leave my apartment, I assume the risk that I might be killed outdoors, and therefore if the justice department chooses to have me taken out by a sniper… I assumed the risk of this.

Similarly, when I type on my keyboard, I assume the risk that through a keylogger, somebody might know what I’m tyrping… so if they choose to install one on my computer somehow, through hacking my computer, or simply breaking into my place, I assumed that risk.

Hey, while we’re at it… I assume the risk that my door is wooden, and therefore a saw can be used to cut a hole in it. So if somebody were to do so to carry out a search of my apartment without them there, I assumed the risk of that too.

with that said, excuse me while I crawl into a hole and never come out, I just can’t bear risking anything else…

Bobby Fiend says:

Re: No Subject Given

A little extremely put, but I definitely agree. The argument seems to be that any means that might possibly be used by the DoJ to do anything they feel needs to be done, is OK simply because it CAN be done.

This is the same rationalization used by car thieves, rapists, and tyrants. Maybe our Department of *Justice* could be held to a slightly hgher set of rules.

kokoloko (user link) says:

Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

I think that the logic behind this conflict is based on differences in opinion on reasonable expectations of privacy. For instance, thus far, I believe that government intercepton of e-mail is legal, on the basis that when using the internet, one doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. I use this analogy when thinking about internet communication:
Dick and Jane are conversing in the mall. They stand 100 yards away from one another and use megaphones to shout at one another. Do they have a reasonable expectation of privacy?
Similarly, when I visit a website (or do anything on the net, for that matter) the request I send (as well as the data returned in response) spends the majority of it’s voyage under the control of companies other than my ISP or the ISP of the other end of the data transaction. While there, users with access to those other companies could concievably access my data without my knowledge. That’s why I believe I don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy on the internet.
Now, as for cellular phone communication: One broadcasts his data, using a publicly known specification, to a tower, which then patches it to the POTS network. Whether or not the cellular company has an obligation to disclose user data to the DOJ is questionable, however, if the DOJ could use the public specification of the CDMA protocol to read and access the data, then I’d have no objection whatsoever.

Jason says:


the scary part is eventually they’ll find some activist nutjob of a aJudge witha different “interpretation” of the constitution and get what they want atleast for a little while until a court that respects the law overturns it. I know it’s the principal of the thing and thats why I am concerned but ultimately I am not a terrorist and most likely neither are any of you so no worries. Of course having a law like this in place would be rather convenient if a more sinister government were able to wrestle power away from the people….OH NO! It’s already happening! Throw away your cellphones and computers! They are watching us!

Bob says:


I would agree to this on the condition that all public officials, including those at the DoJ, be included in the definition of ‘certain individuals’.

As they are public servants, funded with taxpayer monies, therefore the public has the right to know their whereabouts, at all times. No expectation of privacy is to be expected in this regard. Let’s craft a new law right now.

So.. not too comfortable in that pair of shoes, eh?

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