The ACLU has released an astonishing report, the results of a survey of of 383 police departments and other law enforcement agencies. There are 200 responses to their survey so far, and out of those 200, only 10 law enforcement agencies told the ACLU that they do not track cell phones. What’s more, most of those police departments and county and state law enforcement agencies that do track cell phones report obtaining search warrants to do so only in a minority of cases.
Consider the data contained on a “smart” phone. The phone carries your private conversations, of course, but it also keeps data on your physical location as you move, emails and personal text messages, financial information, social network data, Internet habits, travel documents… and on and on. Depending on how “smart” you are with your smart phone, the device might contain detailed medical information, your children’s academic records, and even your cardiovascular performance from your latest workout. All of this information is easily obtainable by the police, and apparently, it is being obtained quite frequently.
You may think that your personal activities aren’t being tracked through your cell phone, because you aren’t engaged in any criminal activity. Of course, being innocent of a crime doesn’t prevent people from being suspected of a crime anyway. What’s more, the most casual association with someone who is a criminal suspect can bring you into the net of police cell phone surveillance. Records obtained by the ACLU from Chatham County, North Carolina, for instance, show that the police there are not just tracking criminal suspects using the GPS devices in their cell phones, but are also tracking by GPS every person that the criminal suspects contact with their cell phones.
It should be an obvious thing to say, but it’s being forgotten: Searching through a person’s private records without a search warrant describing the specific place to be searched is unconstitutional. Whether the records are on paper or electronic shouldn’t make a difference. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution makes the standard clear: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
With the other erosions of the right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure, such as yesterday’s Supreme Court decision declaring that people can be strip searched in prisons even on unsubstantiated suspicion of non-criminal activities, Americans have lost the ability to presume that they can keep their private lives private. These are dark days for the cause of liberty in the United States of America.
We ought to be able to carry and use cell phones with the assurance that what we do using the device will remain private, but the ideals upon which our nation was founded are no longer being heeded. Unless you’re comfortable having your every move watched by the police, carrying a smart phone around with you is just plain dumb.