US Government Sued Over Cell Phone Tracking

by William Fisher
hat tip: IPS North America

NEW YORK, 22 Feb (IPS) – If you are a U.S. resident who owns a cell phone, you should care about the outcome of a court case that “could well decide whether the government can use your cell phone to track you – even if it hasn’t shown probable cause to believe it will turn up evidence of a crime.”

That was the warning issued to the public by several major civil liberties organisations as they appeared in federal court in Philadelphia to argue for more privacy protections in the use of cell phones as tracking devices by law enforcement agents.

The case is at the heart of the constitutional crisis now being played out in the U.S. federal court. Civil liberties groups are asking the court to require that the government show probable cause before it can track your whereabouts.

The groups are the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).

Back in 2007, the U.S. government applied for court permission to obtain information about the location of an individual’s cell phone, without showing probable cause that tracking the individual would turn up evidence of a crime.

A magistrate judge denied the government’s request and a district court upheld that decision in September 2008. The government is appealing the ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

A number of civil liberties groups, on behalf of plaintiffs in the case, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the district court decision, arguing that district courts must require the government to show probable cause before permitting the government to obtain information about the location of a cell phone.

The appeals court will decide whether government agencies in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware must show probable cause before tracking people’s cell phone locations.

EFF explains that, although most people don’t realise it, cell phones double as tracking devices.

“Newer phones contain GPS chips, the same technology that allows car navigation systems to know where you are and give you driving directions. But even older phones that don’t have chips can be tracked by knowing the location of the cell towers they use to connect to a network,” the group said.

“There’s no question that cell phones and cell-phone records can be useful for police officers who need to track the movements of those they believe to be breaking the law,” the group added. “And it is important for law enforcement agents to have the tools they need to stop crimes. However, it is just as important to make sure such tools are used responsibly, in a manner that safeguards our personal privacy.”

Prof. Francis A. Boyle of the University of Illinois law school told IPS that the practice violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states in part that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched.”

“The [George W.] Bush administration reduced the Fourth Amendment to nothing more than a Potemkin Village of rights,” Boyle said. “It exists on paper alone. And a pusillanimous Congress has gone along with shredding the entirety of the U.S. Bill of Rights.”

Read the rest of the article here

1 Comment

  1. morphoyle

    February 24, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    I urge everyone to go to and do whatever you can to fight this. If this is allowed, the next step is using your cell phone as a mobile survielence bug. The capabilities exist for an individual to remotely install a program on your phone, without your knowledge, and without notification, that allows your cell phone microphone to pick up all sounds in range and transmit them to an eavsdropper. You need not be talking on your phone for this to happen. The intruder will basically be able to hear everything you say as well as all noise around you. The FBI has already used this tactic (several years ago) to gather information on a high profile mafia boss whose name escapes me at the moment.
    Also, don’t forget the position of the current administration on this topic – consumers have NO legal expectation of privacy when using a cell phone… .

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