The U.S. Supreme Court must understand that cellphones aren’t voluntary

“You may not realize it, but the cell phone in your pocket creates a time-stamped map of everywhere you go: where you shop, where you receive medical care, and how often you frequent a church, school, or gun range,” Andrew D. Selbst and Julia Ticona write for Wired. “That’s because cell phones automatically connect to the nearest cell phone tower, and by doing so, constantly determine and record the user’s location.”

“Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Carpenter v. United States, a major Fourth Amendment case that questions whether the police can access your phone’s location data without a warrant. The government argues that it should always be entitled to that information, no questions asked, because the 95 percent of American adults who own cell phones choose to give up that information ‘voluntarily,'” Selbst and Ticona write. “Because cell phones transmit that data automatically, however, cell phone users have no choice in revealing their location. Therefore, the only action that could be ‘voluntary’ is owning or using a cell phone.”

“The problem is that cell phones are no longer meaningfully voluntary in modern society. They have become central to society’s basic functions, such as employment, public safety, and government services,” Selbst and Ticona write. “When they hear oral argument this morning, the Supreme Court justices… will have to confront the fact that absent a ruling that requires police departments to obtain warrants to retrieve cell phone location data, cell phones will render our lives involuntarily transparent. At its core, the Carpenter case is about whether Americans’ rights to privacy should turn on whether they “voluntarily” choose to have a cell phone. We hope the Court realizes that it’s really no choice at all.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Again, hopefully The Supremes get it right and require a warrant for such information. The U.S. Supreme court should block unconstitutional warrantless cellphone tracking.

U.S. Supreme court cellphone warrant case puts free speech – not just privacy – at risk – November 28, 2017
Apple, other tech companies ask Supreme Court to block warrantless cellphone tracking – August 15, 2017
U.S. Supreme Court unanimously bans warrantless cell phone searches – June 25, 2014
As U.S. government discusses expanding digital searches, ACLU sounds caution – April 7, 2014
Apple to government authorities: ‘Show warrant to get data’ – May 9, 2014
Can U.S. police search your iPhone without a warrant? – April 28, 2014
U.S. court ruling opens phones to warrantless searches – March 1, 2012


  1. The critical piece is really data aggregation.

    The police *could* assign two dozen people to tail you 24/7 for a month without a warrant. As long as these tails were not intrusive and discrete you would never know they are there. With two dozen people constantly switching off, if they do it properly even the most astute people would not know they are being tracked. This would give the same information as they could get from cell towers telling the police where you have been. Further, under the current circumstances you will never know the police asked for that information. There really is no new information here for a single individual.

    The problem at issue here is no police force could afford to assign two dozen officers to track 100+ people concurrently. It’s just not realistic in any circumstance. However, with the aggregation of information from the cell service providers they can track those 100+ people.

    This automatically, under the current rules, allows the police to track groups and individuals affiliated with groups. Want to associate with 100+ extremely religious friends and meet up occasionally? They can track each and everyone of you, where you go before, during, and after your meeting. They can tell what other groups you frequent or even meet up with just out of curiosity. They can do it with cell tower information. You’d never know they are tracking everyone in your group.

    Want to get together with 100+ of your friends to figure out how to remove President Trump from office peacefully? They can track each and everyone of you, where you go before, during, and after your meeting.

    Cell towers need the user and location information for many reasons ranging from what service you’re using (several services typically use the same tower) to how to do RF beam forming (i.e., electronically steer RF beams in your direction) for optimal reception.

    However, I see no reason for cell service providers to retain that information more than a minute after you stop connecting to a specific tower. That information should be extremely perishable. The first-in-first-out queue for that information should be less than one minute long.

    If every cell service provider and every tower system had to purge the information less than 1 minute after you left the cell tower’s reception area, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. There would be no records for the police to request/demand.

  2. How is tracking someone’s geographic location an invasion of privacy?

    Does the government require a warrant to conduct visual surveillance?

    How is visual surveillance constitutionally different from collecting the same information from cell phones?

  3. How do the police obtain probable cause for criminal activity if they cannot observe patterns of behavior? Wouldn’t a judge have to then authorize a warrant for an invasive search based on probable cause? If your child was kidnapped would you want the cops to track the suspect without a warrant? If a person was suspect of rape, murder, or other violent act would you want police to track their movements without a warrant? Are we going to clog the courts?

    1. Speaking as a former prosecutor, I would rather clog the courts than repeal the Constitution. No, I would not want the cops to track a suspect without a warrant, because if they don’t have probable cause to get a warrant, why is he a suspect?

      Most people who get wrongfully convicted in America are the victims of police myopia. Peace officers have identified a person of interest at the beginning of the investigation based on an hunch (“It’s always the boyfriend”) and then go out to collect evidence to convict him, rather than keeping an open mind and conducting a thorough investigation to find the actual criminal.

      As Shadowself points out, the difference from physically following the suspect around is data aggregation. The police can track hundreds of people on the off-chance that they might be suspects. That kind of mass data collection will inevitably discover other, completely unrelated, offenses, besides providing a vehicle for repressing people that the police do not like.

      1. I know I was a bit sarcastic on your different post above, but you make some good points here. I think one of the problems with the possibility of blanket surveillance (including everyone’s location history being stored long-term) is that it enables and even encourages the kind of lazy police work you rightfully criticize here.
        Furthermore, one of the best ways to reduce freedom and increase crime/corruption is to give people a sense that they live in a fundamentally unjust world. Blanket surveillance and the abuse that inevitably accompanies it naturally leads to that sense of the world.

  4. Without Google tracking everyone, we wouldn’t have the useful traffic data in our maps. But since Apple supposedly doesn’t allow Google maps/software to track iPhones, we have all those Android users out there to thank for the traffic data.

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