7 Months Of Warrantless 'Just Metadata' Paints A Clear Picture Of Your Personal Life
from the anyone-still-believe-this-info-shouldn't-be-protected? dept
The ACLU (along with the EFF and many others) has filed an amicus brief in a case of warrantless cell location tracking currently being considered by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. It cites the obvious similarity between this and the U.S. vs. Jones decision, in which the justices concluded that a person’s privacy is violated by long-term tracking of their movements.
In that case, a GPS device was attached to a vehicle. In this one, the privacy implications run much deeper.
People carry their cell phones with them all the time. Each time a cell phone makes or receives a call or text message, the wireless provider logs the cell towers the phone connected to during that communication. Cell phone tracking therefore allows the government to reach back into the past and pull up a record of where we have been on any given day.
Lest we forget, this is the same sort of supposedly harmless, non-identifying “metadata” the NSA and FBI are collecting on millions of cell phone users every day, thanks to a very obliging FISA court. In the Jones case, the
justices concurring opinion agreed with the appeals court in finding that the long-term tracking (in this case, 28 days) violated the Fourth Amendment. One wonders what this court will make of this warrantless tracking, which ran for nearly ten times as long.
In the case, United States v. Graham, the government obtained a staggering 221 days of historical cell site location information for two suspects. For one suspect, Aaron Graham, this timespan allowed the government to sweep up his location at 29,659 specific points.
The amount of information that can be culled from these data points easily exceeds anything law enforcement should reasonably expect to obtain without a warrant. Aaron Graham worked with his provider and the ACLU in order to provide it with the same tracking information law enforcement had acquired. Here’s what the ACLU found.
Mr. Graham’s wife was pregnant during the records period. 29 calls during business hours began or ended in the sector where Mr. Graham’s wife’s OB/GYN’s office is located, allowing the inference that they were at the doctor’s office at these times.
The most frequently occurring cell site and sector in Mr. Graham’s records is the closest sector and tower to his home – nearly a third of all of his calls were placed or received in this sector. Of those 4,917 calls, 77 started in his home sector and ended elsewhere and 226 started elsewhere and ended when he was at home, providing information about his patterns of movements to and from home.
From July 10 to July 15, 2010, Mr. Graham’s last call of the night and first call of the morning were either or both placed from his home sector, allowing the inference that he slept at home those evenings. However, on July 9, Mr. Graham’s last call of the night and first call of the next morning were placed from a cell sector 30 minutes from his house. Although we have no reason to believe it to be the case here, this information could reveal private information about the status of a person’s relationships and any infidelities.
The ACLU points out that technological advancements have made it easier for law enforcement and others to easily collect large amounts of data on any person, making the protections of the Fourth Amendment more important than ever. Just because millions voluntarily use products and services utilizing invasive technology doesn’t mean they’re implicitly waiving their right to privacy. Nor should it be assumed the use of a cell phone means the “expectation of privacy” is no longer valid.
Once again, it appears law enforcement’s m.o. is “do it until someone makes you stop.” One wonders what sort of information can be both so vital as to be obtained without the hassle of a warrant, yet still so elusive it could only be ascertained by gathering two-thirds of year’s worth of location info. Hopefully, the court will find along the lines of the Jones decision, and continue rebuilding the protections the Fourth Amendment was written to provide.