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Feds engage in no-warrant tracking through cell phone use records

Far more than interesting academic considerations arise from the growing government practice of tracking individuals’ physical locations through so-called “warrantless cell-tower locational tracking.”

That relatively new and obviously sophisticated investigatory tool is being used with ever-greater frequency by agents in a broad range of federal crimes cases. Federal investigators laud its use as an enforcement tool, since it provides for a comparatively cheap and highly efficient way to pinpoint the location of a criminal suspect.

And what federal agents like best, at least currently and given any lack of a judicial ruling that uniformly constrains the practice, is that they are readily able to obtain relevant phone tracking records from cell phone providers without the need to first establish probable cause and obtain a warrant.

Critics of the practice, which include the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates, find the tactic problematic and troublesome, especially given that fact that -- if unchecked -- it creates an obviously serious matter in a country in which wireless subscriber accounts actually outnumber the national population.

The government has argued that the practice is readily distinguishable from actually affixing tracking devices to vehicles, an act that the United States Supreme Court did address last year, finding it unlawful in the absence of a probable-cause warrant. Locational tracking through obtaining cell-tower records of phone “pings” is different, say federal prosecutors, because the information is owned by a third party -- the cell phone provider. Moreover, the government argues that there is no expectation of privacy in public places.

Several cases are working their way through the nation’s various appellate courts, and commentators on the subject say that it is necessary for the Supreme Court to step in with a ruling that will allow for national consistency on the matter. The Court presently seems disinclined to do so, having just rejected an appeal in a case where authorities tracked a suspect’s movement across several states through cell tower pinging records.

The government obviously has a strong and sophisticated arsenal that it can employ in any criminal investigation. A person who is being investigated on a federal criminal charge has a strong need to secure aggressive representation from a focused and proven criminal defense attorney.

Source: Wired, "Courts can't agree on whether cops can track your cell without a warrant," David Kravets, July 3, ,2013

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