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Privacy Cellphones Crime The Courts Your Rights Online

Police Don't Need a Warrant To Track Your Disposable Cellphone 312

Posted by Soulskill
from the time-to-pitch-that-burner dept.
New submitter Blindman writes "The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that it is okay for police to track your cellphone signal without a warrant. Using information about the cell tower that a prepaid cell phone was connected to, the police were able to track a suspected drug smuggler. Apparently, keeping your cellphone on is authorization for the police to know where you are. According to the ruling (PDF), '[The defendant] did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data emanating from his cell phone that showed its location.' Also, 'if a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal.'"
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Police Don't Need a Warrant To Track Your Disposable Cellphone

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  • So it begins (Score:2, Redundant)

    by ThatsMyNick (2004126)

    The first step in mass surveillance.

    • Re:So it begins (Score:5, Insightful)

      by game kid (805301) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:43PM (#41002203) Homepage

      The first?

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by cpu6502 (1960974)

        Yeah they've been surveilling us for years.

        And what do you expect? If you're driving down the highway and light is bouncing off your car, are police supposed to shut their eyes and stop intercepting the signal (thus letting you get away)? Whether the EM waves you are emitting are visible or not makes no difference.

        • Re:So it begins (Score:5, Insightful)

          by RajivSLK (398494) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @06:03PM (#41003243)

          Whether the EM waves you are emitting are visible or not makes no difference.

          Yes it does. What if a device is invented that can detect the minute changes in gravity that occur when an object moves about. Lets assume that by using this device the police could reconstruct a 3d rendering of an entire city include all the people in it and what they are doing. Does that sound like a good idea?

          Whether your cellphone signal can be tracked without a warrant is not a technical issue. It's a philosophical, moral, societal, political and legal question.

        • by camperdave (969942) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @06:13PM (#41003371) Journal
          Yes, because a special detector violates the reasonable expectation of privacy clause.
    • So it ends (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gatfirls (1315141) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:46PM (#41002251)
      ...our reasonable expectation of privacy and the experiment of civil liberties. The sad thing is that we have lost a lot of them to "aid in fighting" un-winnable and/or lost wars.
      • Re:So it ends (Score:5, Insightful)

        by jxander (2605655) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @05:05PM (#41002493)

        Worst part is, I can already see how the government might address the issue ... Cell phone (and other hardware) manufacturers will be required to include a sticker on the packaging, or maybe just a footnote in the instruction manual that states : "This device complies with FCC regulation 42.x and emits location tracking data that can be collected and used by law enforcement. Ownership of this device implies acceptance of government tracking and anal probing in compliance with .... " etc etc etc

        In fact, it might already be there. I sure as hell haven't read all my fine print.

      • by danomac (1032160)

        So leave your phone at home.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rgbrenner (317308)

        If I walk down a street, anyone within a block or two can see me, and we all agree there was no right to privacy... after all I went out in public.

        But you put a transmitter in your pocket that broadcasts your location to everyone within 45 miles.. and suddenly you're shocked other people know where you are?

        You've got to be kidding me.

        It's your phone. It's your transmitter.

        STOP transmitting your location to the whole city if you don't want people to know where you are.

        • Re:So it ends (Score:5, Insightful)

          by profplump (309017) <zach-slashjunk@kotlarek.com> on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @05:37PM (#41002919)

          Use of radio (or other shared infrastructure) is not equivalent to broadcasting. Cell phone communications are, by law, only allowed between the service provider tower and the subscriber handset and a nontrivial effort is taken to secure that unicast communication against eavesdropping.

        • Re:So it ends (Score:5, Insightful)

          by chill (34294) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @05:37PM (#41002921) Journal

          It does NOT broadcast your location to everyone within 45 miles. GSM, for example, encrypts the signal [hackcanada.com]. Details about whom the signal belongs to and what it contains are between the subscriber and the service.

          What this ruling is about isn't "other people", it is the State conducting a surreptitious search without a warrant. The nature of the radio transmission and the encryption give me a reasonable expectation of privacy.

    • Re:So it begins (Score:5, Insightful)

      by TheGratefulNet (143330) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @05:13PM (#41002607)

      stallman is crazy, in some ways; but he was RIGHT that we are carrying 'involuntary tracking devices'. and we even PAY for them, out of our own pockets!

      its not really 'tinfoil', anymore, to want to remove your battery when the phone is not in use. (not sure what apple fans to, but normal phones can at least have their battery taken out easily and on-demand).

      • Re:So it begins (Score:4, Informative)

        by pushing-robot (1037830) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @06:34PM (#41003595)

        They turn off the phone? Or just switch it to "Airplane Mode"?

        And please don't say 'but it could still be transmitting!' We have these amazing gizmos called 'antennas' that can—I am told—detect radio transmissions. Transmitting also takes power. If smartphones really kept transmitting while off or in air mode, (a) the battery would drain relatively quickly even when the phone is off, (b) some paranoiac with a microwave receiver would have already discovered the unauthorized transmissions, and (c) the FAA (among other groups) would be all over the manufacturer.

        Oh, but I forget: TV provides irrefutable evidence 'they' can track phones which are turned off; at least, when 'they' are not too busy uncropping photos and tracking your IP with a GUI interface made in Visual Basic.

      • by VortexCortex (1117377) <VortexCortex@@@project-retrograde...com> on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @10:46PM (#41006015)

        (not sure what apple fans to, but normal phones can at least have their battery taken out easily and on-demand).

        Apple is actually leading the way in this regard. Some people say this is wrong, but I hear that you get the same effect simply by holding the phone a certain way...

    • The sad thing is, this is actually pretty consistent with how the courts have worked for a long, long time now. (IANAL, grain of salt, etc.):

      There are essentially two arguments here. First, the cellphone pings off of cell towers to identify nearby towers with best service for hand off. Even if this process wasn't wireless, your agent (the phone) would be actively attempting to engage the agent of a publicly-available private service (the tower). This is similar to how it may (and has) been argued that you h

  • by gatfirls (1315141) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:41PM (#41002177)
    ...To fit the drugs in his phone. Or he had an 80's brick phone?
  • by Kenja (541830) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:47PM (#41002267)
    You're going around shouting at different people and then the police ask these people where they think the noise was coming from. There's not asking what was being yelled, just which direction the noise is coming from. I can see this falling into the range of non-private data, as much as I would like to say it's not.
    • Well, if the goal of privacy law is to preserve people's expectations, then the two cases are different. People yelling expect to be heard. Non-technical people with a cell phone don't expect to be tracked like a bear with a radio collar.

    • by houghi (78078) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @05:30PM (#41002811)

      There is a HUGE difference. If they ask the people, they must be there in time. The memory of is not perfect and especially a long time after a specific moment people will not remember, unless there is a very specific reason for it.
      And this is not just when there is a noise, it about being able to have a person following you all the time and keeping minute details of what you are doing, including your time at home.

      I would say that there is a HUGE difference.

      Remember the freedom you were defending by helping out Europe a few years back? Perhaps it is time to return the favour and kick out YOUR evil government. (Yeah, I am aware of Godwin)

  • Writs of Assistance (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rolfwind (528248) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:49PM (#41002279)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writ_of_assistance [wikipedia.org]

    In general, customs writs of assistance served as general search warrants that did not expire, allowing customs officials to search anywhere for smuggled goods without having to obtain a specific warrant. These writs became controversial when they were issued by courts in British America in the 1760s, especially the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Controversy over these general writs of assistance inspired the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which forbids general search warrants in the United States. In the United Kingdom, general writs of assistance continued to be issued until 1819.[6]

    General writs of assistance played an important role in the increasing tensions that led to the American Revolution and the creation of the United States of America. In 1760, Great Britain began to enforce some of the provisions of the Navigation Acts by granting customs officers these writs. In New England, smuggling had become common. However, officers could not search a person's property without giving a reason. Colonists protested that the writs violated their rights as British subjects. The colonists had several problems with these writs. They were permanent and even transferable: a writ holder could assign them to another. Any place could be searched at the whim of the holder, and searchers were not responsible for any damage they caused. This put anyone who had such a writ above the law.

    Idk, but between border control, the patriot act, and the drug wars, it seems to me that e have a whole lotta writs of assistance in this here "free" country.

    • you are correct.

      and how they do this is via 'boiling the frog' by slow cooking.

      little by little, we are having our freedom stolen from us.

      truly stolen, too; since its being taken by those with guns against our will. I call that theft. don't you??

  • Reality... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SuperKendall (25149)

    I don't get this persistent desire of people to ignore reality. If something can be done, it will be. Should it be? Possibly not, but again you are ignoring the REALITY.

    Can someone track your cell phone when it is on? Yes. Therefore it will be done. If that bothers you, turn it off if you are going somewhere you do not want to be found, or burn phones more often...

    • "Can a SWAT team kick in your door in the middle of the night? Yes. Therefore it will be done. Stop complaining about the reality."
      • "Can a SWAT team kick in your door in the middle of the night? Yes. Therefore it will be done. Stop complaining about the reality."

        That is exactly right. If you don't want it to be so, start thinking about disbanding SWAT teams or not allowing them to do B&E at all.

        Why are people assembling basically military police teams and then astonished when they act like military teams?

    • I don't get this persistent desire of people to ignore reality. If something can be done, it will be. Should it be? Possibly not, but again you are ignoring the REALITY.

      Congratulations, you have just argued away the need for the government get a warrant in any situation at all.

      • Congratulations, you have just argued away the need for the government get a warrant in any situation at all.

        All I am saying is that people should be less surprised than they are when things that are obviously quite possible happen.

        Again, as I stated it's not necessarily what SHOULD happen. But when you arrange systems to make something possible and easy, then try to layer controls on and prevent it - well don't be too surprised when the layers of controls fail at times.

        Again to bring this back on topic,

  • Something I think many users of "disposable" phones fail to realize amidst their presumed anonymity is the factor of unique patterns. For example, if an individual suspected of dealing drugs or any other crime has a phone, chances are that the outgoing and incoming calls fit a pattern unique to that user. Even if frequently disposing of old phones and buying new phones, it hardly requires more than two or three calls to uniquely identify someone. You see, it is so wildly unlikely that anyone else in the wor
  • From TFA: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @04:57PM (#41002405) Homepage Journal

    "Perhaps the most important single statement in the ruling refers to the fact that there is no Fourth Amendment violation in use of these techniques because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the voluntary use of a voluntarily bought phone--even one that is pay-as-you-go," [said Nick Selby, managing director of TRM Partners]

    Emphasis mine; let's apply that "logic" to other "voluntary" purchases, and see if it passes the smell test...

    there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the voluntary use of a voluntarily bought house
    there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the voluntary use of a voluntarily bought automobile
    there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the voluntary use of a voluntarily bought pair of pants

    Yup, smells like bullshit to me.

    • well yes it's bullshit, but it was spouted by some guy named Nick Selby... it's not what the judge said.

      The judge compared it to police finding a suspect's location by using a dog to track his scent, which they are allowed to do.

      • well yes it's bullshit, but it was spouted by some guy named Nick Selby... it's not what the judge said.

        The judge compared it to police finding a suspect's location by using a dog to track his scent, which they are allowed to do.

        Here is the explanation the judge gave regarding tracking with dogs:

        "Otherwise, dogs could not be used to track a fugitive if the fugitive did not know that the dog hounds had his scent."

        Unless being suspected of a crime now equates to conviction + escape from custody, that little anecdote is utter bullshit.

        I would say I'm shocked that a judge would exhibit such a blatantly wrong understanding of the law, but these days, I would find it more surprising if he didn't.

    • by Hatta (162192)

      I'm pretty sure the police can track your location while you're using your house. They don't even need a warrant.

    • Well there isn't a reasonble expectatation of privacy in voluntary use of a voluntary house or automobile. The goverment tracks who owns the ownership of both. If they suppect you of commiting a crime the dectective will look up you address and plate numbers. No warrent needed. Warrents are only needed to search your house or car. They can come by and stare at your house or follow your car without a warrent.
  • It's a radio transmitter, dammit! When you walk around with an operating radio transmitter spraying rf in all directions the people it is bouncing off of have a right to absorb some of it and do with it as they wish. That includes the cops. If you want no one to know where you are don't broadcast your location.
    • It's illegal for the cops to use an IR camera to observe your house, without a search warrant. "But your body is an infrared transmitter, dammit! When you walk around spraying ir in all directions the people it is bouncing off of have a right to absorb some of it and do with it as they wish! That includes the cops." No, no they do not.
    • by gatfirls (1315141)
      Except that's not at all how they track them, if they did I would say go for it. They are getting the data from private networks they shouldn't have open access to but they do because of e911 stuff. There's a lot more at stake here than following some drug dealer. There are bad cops (and entire corrupt departments) out there and they shouldn't be able to get this kind of information without a good cause (hence the whole 4th amendment thing). Say some crazed cop wants to find his ex in hiding to beat on,
    • It's a radio transmitter, dammit! When you walk around with an operating radio transmitter spraying rf in all directions the people it is bouncing off of have a right to absorb some of it and do with it as they wish. That includes the cops. If you want no one to know where you are don't broadcast your location.

      Since when is it legal for anyone to do with it as they wish with private communications between individuals? If I decode the signal from your phone I can do whatever I want with it? Really?

      This is not even true for unlicensed and ameature frequencies. You do not even have the right to do whatever the hell you want with the contents of conversation between two parties you overhear even if that conversation is "in the clear".

  • Living, is justification for monitoring, detention, seizure of assets. If you refuse to accept this, you have the right to cease living.
    - .gov

    And sadly we tolerate it, because what else are we going to do. Most Americans were sadly to stupid to vote for Ron Paul.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @05:02PM (#41002457) Journal

    'if a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal.'

    So, anything made of reasonably ordinary matter at a temperature greater than zero Kelvins doesn't enjoy fourth amendment protection? Am I going to have to start using neutrinos as drug mules?

  • So how does this equate to the ruling against the police who were using an infrared camera to find the heat given off by sun lamps in home marijuana growers' setups? In that, the judge ruled they DID have an expectation of privacy when emitting in the eletromagnetic spectrum.

    • by Qzukk (229616)

      In that one, the Supreme Court ruled that because infrared cameras aren't in widespread public use, people don't expect them to be used.

      In this one, the court is saying "Well, anyone can call up the phone company and pretend to be a cop without having to produce any kind of papers or paper trail and find out where you are"

  • by sirwired (27582) on Wednesday August 15, 2012 @05:11PM (#41002579)

    This decision seems incompatible with the GPS tracking decision, which said a warrant was required for GPS tracking. IIRC, the GPS decision didn't key off the fact that the cops had to plant a transmitter, they based the decision off the idea that it was really creepy. This seems to be an identical level of creepiness.

  • There *is* a certain logic to this ruling. Supposing I communicated to my friends with smoke signals, or a searchlight in the sky (Bat signal?), would I expect privacy for my broadcasting these "signals"? A cell phone does the same thing.

    OTOH, the same could be said of radio signals, TV broadcasts, HBO via satellite, etc. These are also broadcast whose raw signals are available for ANYONE to pick up. Yet it is deemed illegal to decode these radio signals, or listen in on cell phone conversations.

    These t

  • I can't image the 6th Circuit will have the final word on this. Wouldn't be surprised to see this make it all the way up to the Supreme Court.

    Given the ubiquity of cell phones in this country, and TFAs assertion that roughly 25% of people are on prepaid.... I'd put a conservative guess around 40-50 million people in the US who just lost a good chuck of their 4th Amendment Rights with this ruling.

  • The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that it is okay for police to track your cellphone signal without a warrant.

    In case you're wondering, the Sixth Court of Appeals is overwhelmingly Republican. Of the thirty justices on the Sixth Circuit, twenty were appointed by Republican presidents (mostly Nixon and G W Bush). Only two were appointed by President Obama.

  • Nothing in the article seems to indicate why prepaid phones would be any different than the others. Apparently in this case the suspect was using a prepaid phone, but it seems that any phone that has GPS tracking enabled could be tracked by the government legally, based upon the court's decision.

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