A U.S. federal appeals court ruled certain forms of warrantless cell phone tracking do not violate Fourth Amendment laws, heating up the debate over consumer privacy on mobile devices
The ruling covers an Indiana case where police officers tracked cell numbers of phones found at the scene of a drug bust. The judges in the appeal ruled that law enforcement’s looking up the cell phone’s number on the devices did not violate search and seizure laws.
This ruling will likely be revisited, as an ongoing debate on how law enforcement treats mobile phone privacy in regards to criminal tracking and the Fourth Amendment heats up. Multiple cases are testing boundaries, and courts are issuing various rulings, drawing differing lines between what kinds of searches violate privacy protections.
In this case, the appeal came from one of the suspects, Abel Flores-Lopez, who argued police had no right to search phone without a warrant. Investigators who found the cell phones did not first get a warrant to search it for its number, which they used to get call history evidence.
“Lurking behind this issue is the question whether and when a laptop or desktop computer, tablet, or other type of computer (whether called a ‘computer’ or not) can be searched without a warrant,” said Judge Richard Posner on the three-person panel, according to Reuters.
This ruling approved the use of the phone to gather information without permission, but it raises questions about how much more is subject to warrantless searches by law enforcement.
In Michigan, police can search cell phone data at traffic stops, drawing ire from the ACLU. But in a recent ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the practice of GPS tracking of a cell phone without a warrant.
But each circumstance offers a possible exception to the rule. In an Arizona case, a suspect argued officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights when they used a “stingray” tracking device to ping his mobile phone without a warrant. But the opposing side argued it was a valid search since the phone was registered in a fake name, suggesting because of that action, the owner forfeited rights to privacy.
Law enforcement now has the right to look up a phone number of a device they find on a scene without a warrant, but it likely raises questions about what other content falls under their right to search. When considered under the Fourth Amendment, the idea of photos, notes, apps, or personal data subject to law enforcement search without a proper warrant leaves the right to privacy in danger of widespread violation. But until higher courts establish definitive guidelines, no one knows exactly where those boundaries begin and end.