Your cell phone — and its location — may not be as private as you thought.


Your cell phone — and its location — may not be as private as you thought.
A federal judge ruled earlier this month that investigators can compel cell phone service providers to turn over a phone’s location history without first obtaining a warrant. Law enforcement personnel need only to convince a judge of the information’s relevance to a crime, falling short of the traditional burden of probable cause granted by the Constitution.
The decision was passed down by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District of Columbia. Lamberth’s ruling argues location information logged when a call or text is sent or received is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. His decision stands on a brief provision within the 1986 Stored Communications Act, which states wire communications, which Lamberth believes includes cell phone calls, may be forcibly obtained from service providers by investigators if the information’s relevance can be argued.
Other cases in similar courts yielded different results, putting Lamberth’s decision in direct conflict with existing rulings. Those decisions relied on the same provisions cited by Lamberth’s, stating a warrant is necessary to serveil an individual’s position through similar cell phone-based data.
The ruling comes at a By Ken Ward
Staff Writer
Your cell phone — and its location — may not be as private as you thought.
A federal judge ruled earlier this month that investigators can compel cell phone service providers to turn over a phone’s location history without first obtaining a warrant. Law enforcement personnel need only to convince a judge of the information’s relevance to a crime, falling short of the traditional burden of probable cause granted by the Constitution.
The decision was passed down by U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth of the District of Columbia. Lamberth’s ruling argues location information logged when a call or text is sent or received is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. His decision stands on a brief provision within the 1986 Stored Communications Act, which states wire communications, which Lamberth believes includes cell phone calls, may be forcibly obtained from service providers by investigators if the information’s relevance can be argued.
Other cases in similar courts yielded different results, putting Lamberth’s decision in direct conflict with existing rulings. Those decisions relied on the same provisions cited by Lamberth’s, stating a warrant is necessary to serveil an individual’s position through similar cell phone-based data.
The ruling comes at a time when debate over privacy and cell phones is becoming more and more divisive. Many Americans do not even realize that their phones can be used to triangulate their position without their knowledge, or that service providers save the location of every call or text placed with a cell phone.
Kansas is familiar with the potential merits of cell phone locationing. In 2007, 18-year-old Kelsey Smith disappeared from a shopping center in Overland Park. Investigators waited three days for Verizon Wireless to surrender cell phone records detailing her movements. Within 45 minutes of turning them over, Smith was found, having been raped and murdered, a short distance from her cell phone.
In 2009, the Kansas State Legislature passed a bill that requires cell phone service providers operating in the state to respond promptly whenever law enforcement requests caller location histories.
McPherson County Sheriff Larry Powell said his department uses cell phones to locate individuals frequently, particularly in handling urgent matters.
“I don’t think we’ve ever used it except on suicides and missing persons cases,” Powell said. “We can get a ping and find out pretty accurately where they are. It’s a very useful tool.”
Powell said the nature of such cases allows the department to proceed without first obtaining a warrant, and wireless service providers play a vital role in the location of those individuals in danger.
As this plays out in America’s courts, its contentious nature is reflected in public opinion. Local residents are divided on the issue, and many were completely unaware their movements could be obtained without a warrant through their cell phone’s location history.
Taren Clement of McPherson recognized the tension in debate over the issue.
“I really don’t know,” she said of her feelings toward Lamberth’s court decision. “I can see where that could be a good thing or a bad thing.”
Others saw less room for debate.
“I’m not all right with that,” said Rebecca Pflughoeft, also of McPherson.
She said accessing location histories was a strict violation of privacy, even with a warrant.
If public safety was an issue, Pflughoeft said, the information might be obtained, but not at the whim of investigators.
In the case of a kidnapping, Pflughoeft said, “If the order came down with a warrant, then I think that’s all right.”
With conflicting decisions at equal court levels, the debate over the legality — and morality — of Lamberth’s decision will likely make its way to the nation’s high chambers.