Aug 142012
 
 August 14, 2012  Court, Featured News, Surveillance, U.S.

EFF has issued a press release about U.S. v. Jones, a case in the District Court for the District of Columbia:

A federal district court is poised to determine whether the government can use cell phone data obtained without a warrant to establish an individual’s location. In an amicus brief filed Monday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) argue that this form of surveillance is just as unconstitutional as the warrantless GPS tracking the U.S. Supreme Court already shot down in this case.

“Location data is extraordinarily sensitive. It can reveal where you worship, where your family and friends live, what sort of doctors you visit, and what meetings and activities you attend,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. “Whether this information is collected by a GPS device or a mobile phone company, the government should only be able to get it with a warrant based on probable cause that’s approved by a judge.”

Read more on EFF.

Meanwhile, in the Sixth Circuit, the Court of Appeals has issued its opinion in U.S. v. Skinner , and it’s not good news for privacy advocates. Unlike Jones, law enforcement did not attach a GPS to a suspect’s car, but did ping his cellphone to discover his locaation. Here’s the beginning of the opinion:

When criminals use modern technological devices to carry out criminal acts and to reduce the possibility of detection, they can hardly complain when the police take advantage of the inherent characteristics of those very devices to catch them. This is not a case in which the government secretly placed a tracking device in someone’s car. The drug runners in this case used pay-as-you-go (and thus presumably more difficult to trace) cell phones to communicate during the cross- country shipment of drugs. Unfortunately for the drug runners, the phones were trackable in a way they may not have suspected. The Constitution, however, does not protect their erroneous expectations regarding the undetectability of their modern tools.

The government used data emanating from Melvin Skinner’s pay-as-you-go cell phone to determine its real-time location. This information was used to establish Skinner’s location as he transported drugs along public thoroughfares between Arizona and Tennessee. As a result of tracking the cell phone, DEA agents located Skinner and his son at a rest stop near Abilene, Texas, with a motorhome filled with over 1,100 pounds of marijuana. The district court denied Skinner’s motion to suppress all evidence obtained as a result of the search of his vehicle, and Skinner was later convicted of two counts related to drug trafficking and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. The convictions must be upheld as there was no Fourth Amendment violation, and Skinner’s other arguments on appeal lack merit. In short, Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data emanating from his cell phone that showed its location.

Citing Knotts, the opinion explains:

There is no Fourth Amendment violation because Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his voluntarily procured pay- as-you-go cell phone. If a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal. The law cannot be that a criminal is entitled to rely on the expected untrackability of his tools. Otherwise,dogs could not be used to track a fugitive if the fugitive did not know that the dog hounds had his scent. A getaway car could not be identified and followed based on the license plate number if the driver reasonably thought he had gotten away unseen. The recent nature of cell phone location technology does not change this. If it did, then technology would help criminals but not the police. It follows that Skinner had no expectation of privacy in the context of this case, just as the driver of a getaway car has no expectation of privacy in the particular combination of colors of the car’s paint.

Lest you think this just applies to criminals, the court hastens to assure that the lack of expectation of privacy from government pings applies to us all. In a footnote, they write:

We do not mean to suggest that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy because Skinner’s phone was used in the commission of a crime, or that the cell phone was illegally possessed. On the contrary, an innocent actor would similarly lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in the inherent external locatability of a tool that he or she bought.

You can read the full opinion here.

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