Cell phones; who doesn’t have one? Well, almost everyone has one. I mean how could you live your life without one? I can remember when they didn’t exist and we still managed to survive. We couldn’t get an in instantaneous answer to a trivia question and we had to use a map to find a location; but life went on. Now, I do admit that cell phones are very convenient and I do enjoy the ability to reach out to my friends and family whenever I wish, even if it is just to send them a quick text. I certainly would not want to return to the “old” days and not have them.
This all being said, the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding cell phone privacy was very important for all of us. As with all rulings, it depends on which side of the fence you are on as to whether it was a victory or defeat. Law enforcement will consider it a defeat while common citizens might consider it a win. I say might because most will not take the time to understand the ruling and how it could affect their lives.
As you all know, cell phones use towers to transmit their signals so their users can communicate. While your cell phone is on, your location is tracked from tower to tower as you go about your day. Of course, we are not aware of this and it really doesn’t matter to us; but, if you are a police officer and you are trying to prove the whereabouts of a perpetrator at a particular time and day, this information can be very important.
Up unto now, law enforcement could acquire this information from the various cell phone companies pretty much without a warrant. They used the Stored Communications Act which meant that law enforcement only had to provide “reasonable grounds” as a justification to acquire the cell phone information about a suspect. This process was not very formal and had a fairly low threshold to clear for it to be approved.
This recent ruling is important in that going forward; law enforcement must get a search warrant to access a suspect’s cell phone records. There are some good exemptions that this ruling left in place, such as active shootings, child kidnapping, and bomb threats where a warrant will not be required. A search warrant is a more formal process where law enforcement must justify with evidence to a judge why a person’s cell phone records are needed. This undoubtedly will increase the burden on law enforcement to show justification for the need of these records. They probably won’t like it.
On the other hand, what is your expectation of privacy regarding what you do with your cell phone? Have you thought about it? Do you want law enforcement to be able to get your cell phone records without a warrant? You could say, “I’m not a criminal so what do I have to hide?” That’s true, but how secure is the information that is gathered? What if the information gathered fell into the hands of someone that knows you, and they use it to harm you or your loved ones? That ever crossed your mind? It should.
There is a fine line of a law abiding citizen’s expectation of privacy and law enforcements ability to overcome that expectation in their quest to arrest a criminal. Here is something that you must really think about; even with privacy protections in place, look what happened with the FISA judges and the FBI regarding what was allowed with fake justification when the phones of Trump campaign workers were tapped. I don’t care if you like Trump or not, what was done with the FISA courts should scare you.
So, the bottom line is this, if law enforcement has a suspect and they want their cell phone records; then gather enough evidence to prove you need them and take it to a judge and get a warrant. Most of the time, law abiding citizen’s privacy should be protected using this system. There has to be checks and balances with expectations of privacy, if not, rampant abuse will prevail and information about you in the wrong hands could cause you many problems.