Cops don't need warrants to track your phone location

Fourth Amendment protections dwindle again with ruling that no probable cause needed to track location records

Published July 31, 2013 1:17PM (EDT)


Think of your phone as a tracking device. The idea that law enforcement agencies can access phone location data is nothing new. However, in a troubling ruling for privacy advocates, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that law enforcement agencies need not obtain a warrant of probable cause to access cellphone subscribers’ cellphone tower location information, including location histories.

The 5th Circuit ruling is an important one that once again illustrates how telecom providers work in tandem with government efforts to be able to track, at any given time, the whereabouts and locational history of any given cellphone user -- it's all in the providers' records. As Wired noted, "the 5th Circuit, which sets law in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, concluded today that the locational history of a mobile phone does not enjoy constitutional protections because the government has not performed the tracking, and that the data is simply a business record owned by carriers." Wired reported that the "ruling comes as the authorities have widely adopted using warrantless cell-tower locational tracking of criminal suspects in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling 18 months ago that they need probable-cause warrants from judges to affix covert GPS devices to vehicles."

As with the revelations that the government is, as daily practice, hoarding vast phone and online communications metadata, Tuesday's ruling carries worrying implications for our ever dwindling Fourth Amendment protections in the digital age. As ACLU attorney Catherine Crump commented:

This ruling fails to recognize that Americans do in fact have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location information. Where you go can reveal a great deal about your life, and people don’t think that carrying a cell phone around means that someone can get a detailed record of their movement... The government should not be able to access this personal, sensitive information without getting a warrant based on probable cause. Unfortunately, the Fifth Circuit’s decision allows exactly that.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Cell Phone Fourth Amendment Location Data Phone Tracking Privacy Warrantless