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?