Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where's Waldo? Nevermind, we found him.

Every time you leave your house, you check your pockets to make sure you have the essentials: wallet, keys, and government tracking device, right?  Wait, what was that last one again?  Oh, your cell phone?  Yes, it’s extraordinarily useful in sending tweets to Justin Bieber, posting pictures of your meals on instagram, and stalking exes on facebook, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently identified a new use: government tracking.
Police in Texas asked a federal magistrate to force a cell phone company to provide the antenna tower and sector for certain cell phone users who were being investigated.  In layman’s terms—the police wanted the location of the cell phone users.  The federal magistrate decided that the police needed a warrant to get such information.  On appeal, a federal district court judge agreed—if the police wanted the location of the users based on the cell phone company’s records, they needed a warrant supported by probable cause.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that police do not need a warrant to obtain the location of cell phone users from their cell provider’s records.  The majority held that whenever a cell phone user broadcast information (e.g. sent a text message, made a phone call, or accessed the internet) to a third party (after all—we don’t own our own cell towers), that user lost his expectation of privacy.  In other words—if you want to keep your location private—don’t use a cell phone.

The practical response by most people to this decision will be—“eh, why do I care if the government knows where I am, or where I’ve been?”  For those charged with a crime, however, that information can be very damning.  Evidence of a user’s location can be used to establish an incriminating pattern (e.g. trips to/from a buyer or seller of narcotics), defeat an alibi, or establish proximity of the accused to the scene of the crime.

So next time you’re sending a text message, making a phone call, or updating your facebook status, to tell your friends where you are, just remember—the government already knows.