GPS Ruling: No Comment on Cell Phones

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Last updated April 12, 2019

This week, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in favor of privacy rights.  That case involved the secret attachment of a GPS tracking device onto a vehicle.  Such procedures would allow police forces to keep track of a suspect’s movements without the need to secure a warrant, which requires the demonstration of probable cause.  The court held that such a procedure is equivalent to a search and does indeed require a warrant.

This may sound like good news to cell phone users leery of being tracked through their handsets, but it is not clear at all that the ruling would extend that far.  The Obama Administration believes that no warrant is required to ask for tracking information from your cell phone provider, and as of yet, no appeals court has ruled on the legality or constitutionality of such a procedure.  The lack of a ruling is quite deliberate as government lawyers frequently fail to appeal the issue when they lose in district courts, precisely because they do not want a definitive ruling that could make them stop the practice.

Nor is the practice rare at all.  “This is a commonly used technique,” commented Catherine Crump, an attorney for the A.C.L.U.  “If this doesn’t happen tens of thousands of times a year, I’d be shocked.”

Cell phone users must wait for another day, or perhaps another decade, before a court is likely to step in to protect their privacy rights in the digital age.