Your Cell Phone Is A Homing Beacon

Here’s the next step Big Brother is taking toward an Orwellian 1984: Your cellular telephone can pinpoint your location any time it’s turned on. That’s right. Any time your cell phone is turned on and within range of a cellular tower, it is communicating with that tower to broadcast your location. It has to. Otherwise you couldn’t get your incoming calls. Federal law enforcement agencies have figured this out, and if you are someone a federal law enforcement agency is looking for, they are using that to track you.

Here’s how it works: These days, everyone has a cell phone. Since the end of 2005, the Federal Communications Commission has mandated that cell phone service providers must be able to locate 67% of all callers to within 100 meters, and 95% of all callers within 300 meters. Cell phone companies have a variety of ways of doing this. They can triangulate your position by using three cell towers to fix your position. Others have gone one step further, and most new cell phones come with a GPS chip which can be used to pinpoint your position to within a few feet. The cell phone companies record your location data as determined either through triangulation or from the GPS chip, and store it as “historical location” information. An important feature in this equation, however, is the ability of your cell phone service carrier to transmit “real-time” location information (of your cell phone, anyway) to law enforcement at any time. And since “everyone” carries their cell phone, the government has a pretty good chance of tracking you down if they need to. Big Brother is watching.

Now this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are someone wanted by the FBI or another federal law enforcement agency, maybe the FBI should be able to get information from your cell phone company that would pinpoint your location. In fact, no one is seriously saying that the FBI cannot get access to that information. The real question is rather what showing is required for the government to gain such access. As to historical location information, the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. ¬ß¬ß 2701 et seq., provides that the government need only demonstrate ‘articulable facts as to why such records are relevant to an ongoing investigation.’ This is a significantly lower showing than the government must make to get a search warrant. For that, it must demonstrate ‘probable cause that the information sought will lead to evidence of a crime.’ The government is asserting that they need only satisfy this same rather lax ‘articulable facts’ standard for getting real-time location information rather than showing probable cause that the information will yield evidence of a crime. The question of required showing by the government has been causing quite a stir in the federal courts recently.

The first court to publish a decision regarding the government’s required showing was the Southern District of New York. On August 25, 2005, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein denied the government’s request for real-time cell site location information. The court had previously granted the government’s request for installation and use of a pen register and trap and trace device, which allowed the government to obtain the numbers which call the phone or are called by it, and the time those calls are made. The pen register and tap and trace device are clearly available by federal statutes, including 18 U.S.C. ¬ß¬ß 2703, 3122, and 3123. But the importance of this decision is that Judge Orenstein denied the site location information that would provide real-time location because the government failed to provide information establishing the probable cause that would be required for a warrant. The judge noted that he had granted similar requests in the past, and quoted Justice Frankfurter: “Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not reject it merely because it comes late.

Following Judge Orenstein’s stand, several magistrate judges have been confronted with similar requests for location information derived from cell phone tracking. In fact, a dozen decisions have issued regarding the requested cell site information since that decision. The requests at issue, like the request Judge Orenstein confronted, were not accompanied by affidavits establishing probable cause that evidence of a crime would be discovered. Instead, the government stated that the information would be relevant to an ongoing investigation, thus apparently satisfying the less stringent standard required to get the historical location information. All but two of these decisions have denied the government’s request.

On December 20, 2005, Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein, of the Southern District of New York, became the first to agree with the government’s arguments in a published opinion. While it is a complex issue, the court reasoned that the cell location information sought was covered by the Pen Register Statute, which would provide authority for the order if not for a provision of 47 U.S.C. ¬ß 1002. That section, part of the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994, provides that information acquired solely pursuant to the authority of pen registers and trap and trace devices shall not include any information that may disclose the physical location of the cell phone customer. Judge Gorenstein found that the information sought was not acquired solely pursuant to the authority of pen registers and trap and trace devices.

Almost every other published case has disagreed with Judge Gorenstein. Only Magistrate Judge Hornsby in Louisiana has agreed with Judge Gorenstein. (A magistrate judge in West Virginia granted the government’s request. It did so, however, after rejecting the government’s arguments about statutory authority for the cell location information and holding instead that the individual in question had no expectation of privacy in the cell phone because the phone in question did not belong to him. It belonged to a friend.)

Almost all of these cases have another similarity. In each case, the magistrate judge issuing the opinion denying the government’s request has invited the government to seek review of the denial so that the magistrate judges will have guidance as they continue to encounter this issue. The government has not yet seen fit to seek review of any of these cases. As the government appears ex parte in each case, and the individual never even knows he is being tracked, there is no one else to seek review. Thus, the government seems willing, and able, to deprive the courts of any higher level guidance of the required showing it must make to receive the cell location information it seeks.

As technology continues to advance, law enforcement naturally looks to find ways to use that technology to improve its efficiency. The concern must be drawing the proper line between efficiency of law enforcement and protecting the privacy of the citizens. It is up to the courts to recognize, as Judge Orenstein did in this case, when that line is approached, and when it is crossed. And when magistrate judges across the country invite the government to seek review of their decisions to provide guidance from higher courts and the government declines all such requests, instead remaining content with the rulings against them, it begins to raise suspicions. If this is a valuable tool for law enforcement to use to protect citizens more efficiently and effectively, and clearly it is, why does the government resist all efforts to establish the limits of the use of that tool? Big Brother?