US Gov't Pushes for Warrantless CellPhone Tracking

Dennis Faas's picture

The United States government is in court fighting for the right to track people's location via their cellphone, without warrant. It says the powers are needed to hunt down criminals, but civil rights activists say that tracking shouldn't be allowed without ."probable cause."

Cellphone Tracking Uses Triangulation

The case doesn't involve monitoring conversations or reading text messages, but rather using call records to track a user to within 150 feet. That's usually done by triangulation, which involves finding a cellphone's distance from the three nearest network towers.

Cellphone carriers must have this ability (which may include using towers from more than one network) so that they can help locate somebody who is making an emergency call, for example after a car accident where the driver doesn't know their precise location.

However, the Justice Department is now appealing a court ruling which says government bodies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can't usually demand that networks hand over such details without a warrant.

Case Puts Constitution In Question

Experts on the law and how it applies to modern communications suggest the issue is far from clear. The fourth amendment of the US constitution defends a citizen's "persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" but it's arguable whether that covers details of their current location.

There's also the question of the contracts customers sign with network carriers. Most include promises that they won't share personal data without permission, but these clauses could be overridden by any relevant laws or court rulings. (Source:

Disputed Law Dates From 1986

At the moment, officials demand the records using a section of the Stored Communications Act, passed in 1986, which has a much lower burden of proof to obtain records than it takes to get a physical search warrant. A Philadelphia judge in one case refused to give permission for officials to access records under the act, which has sparked the current appeal.

The resulting legal wranglings have shown cellphone tracking is more widespread than many had realized. One FBI agent testified that he had used the act to obtain records for more than 150 suspected criminals.

The specific case that's gone to appeal only covers historical records, which simply mean's a network's records of calls already made. It doesn't cover prospective tracking, which reveals where a user is currently located (even if they aren't making a call), though privacy campaigners fear that might be a next step. (Source:

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