Cellphone Tracking on Judicial Scales

November 9, 2011, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

You must have heard about cellphone tracking. It is the most common type of surveillance method used by authorities.

Phone tracking even tops surveillance using wire taps and GPS, according to a survey of local, state and federal authorities by The Wall Street Journal.

The State and Federal authorities reportedly track thousands of Americans each year, and that too in secrecy.


That practice has come face to face with the legal book. It poses one of the biggest privacy questions: whether the police need a search warrant to track a person’s minute-by-minute movements using satellite or cellphone technology.

Al Gidari, a partner at law firm Perkins Coie, whose client list include mobile carriers, had revealed that wireless service providers receive a huge number of requests for user records. Since tracking requests are kept away from the public eye, little is known about the practice.

A person being served a search warrant knows about it, while a person’s cell phone being tracked is not aware. They find pout only after they are charged with a crime and their tracking data is recorded as evidence.

The tracking problem has persisted through the years and courts have wrestled with the issue of how electronic tracking fits with the Constitution’s prohibition against searching a place unless the authorities can persuade a judge to approve a search warrant. Vehicle tracking, on the other hand, could be done without a warrant as the court didn’t see any breach of privacy being an issue there.

The government acknowledges that cellphone tracking is a lower legal standard when compared to a search warrant. The process says the government, is governed by a 1986 law that requires only that police provide a judge with facts “showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” the material sought is relevant to a criminal investigation.

But the federal courts are still in doubt whether these lower standards should be applicable to something as sensitive as a person’s location.

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