Who has the right to know where your phone has been?

Cell phone tower
Photo: Cell phone tower by Gary Lerude via Flickr

Law enforcement agencies subpoena cellphone location data regularly. But civil liberties groups hope a series of state-level legal victories will usher in stronger protections.

Reporter Larry Abramson writes for NPR:

You probably know, or should know, that your cellphone is tracking your location everywhere you go. But whether law enforcement officials should have access to that data is at the center of a constitutional debate.

Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, says location tracking is key to how the cell system operates.

“As you move around, your phone is constantly checking to see whether the tower that it’s currently registered with is the best one, or whether there’s a better tower with a stronger signal coming in range,” he says. Cellphone companies store that information so they can deliver better service.

That’s handy for the police. Law enforcement agencies across the country already subpoena phone location data regularly. The district attorney for Suffolk County, Mass., regularly asks phone companies for cellphone location information.

The subpoenas are “part of almost every major case, including homicide, in some cases, sexual assault, drug trafficking cases,” says Jake Wark, a spokesman for the office.

While the National Security Agency has conceded that it does collect records of U.S. phone traffic, it says it does not currently track the location of cellphones. But the agency also says that it would be legal to collect that information.

Today’s Question: Who has the right to know where your phone has been?

  • AndyBriebart

    How about your medical records? If you can actually get into the ACA website, you must give the government all your information even before you can shop for policies.

    How about your firearms? Do they get to know that too?

  • Pearly

    The NSA silly

  • AndyBriebart

    Was this question supposed to be targeted for European leaders?

  • reggie

    No one (and that includes Mitt Romney’s “corporations are people”) has a right to track my phone without a subpoena. I worry much more about businesses’ efforts to monitor my behavior (um… my supposedly anonymized “data”) than I worry about government. If some prosecutor thinks he or she has the goods to request a subpoena, it would have to be run past a judge. I guess I’d rely on the legal system to protect me at least that much…

    Same question applies to internet behavior. I have more concern about business monitoring than government.

    • Jamie

      Listen to the audio. They claim they don’t require a subpoena for that.

      • reggie

        If “they” is the gov’t, they can claim whatever they want, with those claims eventually tested in court. In the current climate, such surveillance will probably be upheld. As noted, I am more worried about the behavior of the non-governmental “theys.”

    • Fred Garvin

      “and that includes Mitt Romney’s “corporations are people””
      I was wating for Mr. Olson to scold you on your off-topic aside and opinion on Mitt Romney, but once again, such biases are loudly silent.
      Anyway, it wasn’t Mitt Romney that proclaimed corparations are people, it was the US Supreme Court.
      Does the corporation that provided you the phone or provides cell service to you have a right to track your phone?

      • reggie

        Fred, the law says that corporations have many of the same legal rights as a natural persons, not that corporations are people. That infamous locution was Mitt’s. Maybe he heard it somewhere else, but it has entered the lexicon as his…

        I have the same concerns and suspicions about MPR’s use of data that I have with any other corporation. I don’t think my comments suggested otherwise.

        It is possible to appreciate the products and services provided by a corporation (MPR or the phone company I use), and still not trust it to collect and use data in my best interest. That doesn’t make me stop listening to the radio or calling my kids, but it does make me want to restrict the collection of data, no matter how well-intended or maliciously intended the collector. The mere existence of that data predicts its use.

        • Fred Garvin

          It wasn’t Mitt’s “infamous locution”; it was a very clear, understandable, and accurate statement on what corporations are.
          A church is its people.
          A corporation is its people.
          A corporation ain’t some “thing”–it’s people.

          • reggie

            Sorry, Fred. A corporation actually is a “thing”: a legal entity. It has rights similar to those of natural persons, but it is not a person. Ditto for an incorporated church.

          • Fred Garvin

            I agree that a corporation is a legal entity.
            So is “personhood”, “citizen”, “woman”, “mother” and on and on.

          • Yanotha Twangai

            No, actually, a corporation is a legal fiction defined by words on a piece of paper filed in a government archive and has no existence beyond what the law says it has.

          • Fred Garvin

            Well no, a corporation EXISTS. Thus, it is not a “fiction”!
            And “personhood” is no more or less than what the government (Sup. Ct.) defines it as, right?
            A “citizen” is no more or less what the government says its is, right?
            Heck, a “woman” is no more or less than what the gov’t says she is and in fact, she can change and the gov’t will confer upon him a new identity.
            In CA, the gov’t defined a man and a woman as nonessential as the parents of a child on a birth certificate!
            It sure looks like just about EVERYTHING exists only so far as the law says it exists.
            I just love these pseudo-lawyers who read oddball websites about those “evil” corporations trying to run everything.
            As I have shown, once you take their “arguments” to other logical places, they do seem wacko.

          • Yanotha Twangai

            About some things, the law can say whatever the legitimate government of a piece of real estate decides it does. About other things, legal definitions may be more or less irrelevant to objective realities. A corporation has no objective reality apart from the legal framework in which it exists, in contrast to an actual flesh-and-blood man or woman.

    • Fred Garvin

      ” I have more concern about business monitoring than government.”

      Do your concerns extend to MPR monitoring your internet behavior?

  • Sue de Nim

    What’s the big deal? If you want to hide your location from law enforcement, just turn your phone off. In my case, those phone location records would be more likely to provide an alibi than incriminating info.

  • Jim G

    The phone company has a reason to know my location. It is to provide me with better service. Other than that reason, no one needs to know where I am. If asked, the NSA would most likely say that it is legal for them to collect the information of what I ate for breakfast this morning; organic eggs, Canadian bacon and sprouted whole wheat toast will probably put me in some high risk category. If it is legal for them to collect this information, it shouldn’t be. It’s time to say enough to the NSA. Just because they have the capability to collect and store this information doesn’t mean they should.

    • reggie

      Eggs=cholesterol risk (we’ll cross-reference with your medical records to see what other risk factors you have and adjust your health insurance premiums accordingly, Mr. G).

      Canadian bacon=possible national security risk (what’s wrong with American bacon, Mr. G?).

      Sprouted whole wheat toast=hippie dippy enviro activist (is “sprouting” some sort of performance enhancing additive, Mr. G?).

      The surveillance society is all about connecting the dots. Behind that clever facade of responsibility you’ve been cultivating, you are a suspicious person, Mr. G. The data reveals all…

      • Jim G

        Who knew that Canadian bacon would be my undoing? Yes, it’s a parody of reality, but it’s scary close to the mark. The data reveals all …whatever story a prosecutor, enemy, or marketeer chooses to weave together from the bits of my life. In a world where even if I am as pure as the whitest snow, which my wife knows that I’m not…I can be nailed to a cross of misinterpretation, crucified and/or solicited to by uncaring, soulless entities. What a world… what a world…

  • Rich in Duluth

    The phone company has the right to my phone’s location, in order to operate their
    system and law enforcement, if they have a subpoena.

    Like many things, this goes two ways.

    I would prefer that nobody know my location simply because it’s my business. But, if I had the misfortune of having an accident or getting sick while traveling, it would be nice if those who care about me were able to locate me.

  • Ralfy

    I Love Big Brother.
    I like Homeland Security.
    Knowing “They” know is such a comfort.

    • Pearly

      God bless the Federal Government!

  • kevins

    They can track me all day long if needed because my phone is off most of the time, and I generally do uninteresting things when it is on. My adult children however seem to be umbilically connected to their smart phones, and may well have a different opinion. Phone or not, I am certain that privacy is largely an illusion, and I am truly grateful for what privacy I have. We are likely tracked by proprietary interests on many levels, without our knowledge or consent, and there is something deeply unsettling about that, but we will never be able to stop it. Be brave in the new world.

  • Bill

    It would be nice if I could find it at times.
    The rest of the time Nancy Pelosi should know.

  • david

    Seems pointless. The people who law enforcement should be looking for are going to be using pay as you go phones that get replaced every time it runs out of minutes.

    As others have said, being found should you go missing, or a circumstantial alibi should you need to prove your innocence could come in handy. So I guess those who protect and serve should have access when needed. Those fishing for something should not.

  • Scott44

    Being a memebr of Search and Rescue, it sure is nice when the phone company can ping a phone to aid our search. But this does only work in areas that have coverage.