A federal court just ruled that if your carrier's towers can see you, the police can see you too. They don't need a warrant to track your all over the country. All they need is a rubber stamped request for the information from your carrier.
In 2006, Melvin Skinner was busted in a motorhome with more than 1000 pounds of weed. He's been attempting to overturn the conviction because the police tracked his burner phone to a Texas rest stop. When the police knocked on the door, Skinner didn't let them in, but a K-9 quickly established probable cause and Skinner was arrested.
The drug dealer argued that tracking his location was a warrantless search and a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. He appealed the conviction up to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the court disagreed:
There is no inherent constitutional difference between trailing a defendant and tracking him via such technology. Law enforcement tactics must be allowed to advance with technological changes, in order to prevent criminals from circumventing the justice system.
In other words, the court ruled that because the police could have performed the tracking via visual surveillance, there was no violation. We should note that this applies only to the location information. The content of any calls or data transmission you make is still protected.
There are a few troublesome parts of this case, but perhaps the most problematic is the second half of the court's statement above. Yes, maybe the rules of law enforcement need to evolve with technology but that doesn't mean that the court should conflate the information police can see with the data that's collected remotely. Furthermore, why is location data different than other data? The court's made an argument in one direction, but and unfortunately, it's arguing in favor of spying. [Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal via Ars Technica]
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