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Supreme Court Rules Police Need a Warrant to Track Our Mobile Phones

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant in order to get access to cellphone location information.

This is HUGE and a big win for anyone who cares about intrusive, mass, warrantless surveillance that is, by any measure, illegal searches and (data) seizures.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the “liberal” justices (ones I instead use the adjective “strategic” to describe). This National Public Radio (NPR) story In Major Privacy Win, Supreme Court Rules Police Need Warrant To Track Your Cellphone put it succinctly:

The majority declared that the Fourth Amendment guarantees an expectation of privacy and that allowing police to obtain moment-by-moment tracking of an individual’s cellphone location is a kind of surveillance that the framers of the Constitution did not want to occur without a search warrant.

The chief justice said that this sort of tracking information is akin to wearing an electronic ankle-bracelet monitoring device and that the citizens of the country are protected from that kind of monitoring unless police can show a judge that there is probable cause of a crime that justifies it.

After the 2014 Edward Snowden revelations about mass, warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens — which was being performed by the signal intelligence focused National Security Agency (NSA) — was an enormous concern both domestically and internationally as the NSA’s clear mission was to focus only on foreign signal intelligence while excluding spying on American citizens. The outcry domestically and internationally reached a fever pitch…but little was revealed on what was being done to stop mass, warrantless surveillance.

Then some of Snowden’s document releases were published and it was revealed that all of this vacuumed-up data had a “Google-like search engine” that could be used to scour all data for an individual or group. Somehow the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other law enforcement agencies were being provided with data that couldn’t be challenged in court due to “national security concerns” so the extent of data being swept-up has never been completely understood.

The bottom line? The accelerating “surveillance State” was already out of control and Congress seemingly turned a blind eye toward it and extended its capability.

Though it has taken too many years for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the Constitutionality of warrantless surveillance, the explosion in law enforcement’s use of cellphone tracking devices like Stingray, meant that warrantless tracking by police agencies was low-hanging-fruit for the court to address.

In my mind it’s too little, too late…but it’s a start.

About Steve Borsch

I'm CEO of Marketing Directions, Inc., a trend forecasting, consulting and publishing firm in Minnesota. Prior to that I was Vice President, Strategic Alliances at Lawson Software in St. Paul where I was responsible for all partnerships at this major vendor of enterprise resource planning software products and services. Read more about me here unless you're already weary of me telling you how incredible and awesome I am.

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