Big Brother Can Arrest Robbers by Tracking Their Locations

What if I told you the government had the ability to obtain all your smartphone records and use them to track your every location? Probably nothing, since it doesn’t personally affect you. You might even applaud it, since government prosecutors can use the information to put robbers in prison. But is it worth the risk to our civil rights?

Between December 2010 and December 2012, Timothy Carpenter and about fourteen other conspirators robbed a series of RadioShack’s and T-Mobiles throughout Ohio and Michigan. Carpenter allegedly served as organizer and lookout for the group. In April 2011, police arrested four of the conspirators and one of them confessed to the entire scheme. The conspirator who confessed gave the FBI his cellphone and the cellphones of the other members of the group. The FBI demanded Sprint and MetroPCS, the phone service providers, turn over a list of all cell sites that the phones had been in proximity to for the previous 127 days. The FBI used the list to track the defendants’ every location during the time of the alleged robberies. Since the data revealed that the robbers had been in the stores during the robberies, the defendants were found guilty.

trackingOn appeal to the Sixth Circuit, Carpenter argued that his 4th amendment rights had been violated because the FBI and the government had obtained private information without a warrant. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the guilty verdict, though the judges disagreed on whether new technology automatically raised 4th amendment questions. The case is now pending before the Supreme Court.

Does Cell Phone Number Privacy Exist?

Carpenter’s defense is mostly based on the existence of cell phone number privacy.  Does the government need a warrant if they want to view your contacts list on your cell phone? With traditional landline phones, the court had ruled that people lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in dialed telephone numbers because the information was conveyed to third parties.

Arguably, that same conveyance of information to third parties exists with cell phones. I can’t expect my call to my parents to be private if Sprint or MetroPC have records I made the call. The contents of the phone might be private, as I wouldn’t expect Sprint or MetroPC to be listening in while I’m talking with them. However, Sprint or MetroPC would have records that I called them, so the mere fact that I called them would not be private information unless obtained with a warrant.

The issue is that this information is being used a way that reasonable Americans probably wouldn’t be able to anticipate. If the FBI only wanted the information to show that Carpenter knew the other fourteen other conspirators, this would not be a Supreme Court worthy case. Instead, the FBI is using the cell phone data to create map whereby they can determine exactly where the defendants were or had been. This is less like the FBI seeing who I called recently and more like an FBI agent following me around everywhere for 127 days. The only question is whether the FBI agent needs a warrant to follow me around. If the answer is “YES!”, then the FBI should also have a warrant before generating their map tracking wherever defendants go.

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