Do you carry a cellphone? Do you know that your cellular service provider knows where your phone is? By extension, if you carry your phone with you, your cellular service provider knows where you are. Cellular phones can be located, accurate to within about 300 yards, whenever they are turned on. Since most cellular phone users keep their phones on and with them most of the time, it is quite probable that their ongoing whereabouts are being automatically tracked.
Law enforcement agencies frequently use cellular technology to secretly monitor the movements of criminal suspects; however, courts are now putting requests for this type of surveillance under tougher scrutiny. Judgments by federal magistrates in New York, Texas, and Maryland reflect the growing debate of privacy rights and the government’s ability to surveil using digital technology. The legal decisions require law enforcement to first show probable cause to belive that a crime has been or is being committed: the same standard that applies to search warrant requests.
As cellphones become principal phones, both for consumers and businesses, it is possible that cellular tracking technology will have a profound impact on individual privacy, primarily because most people do not recognize the facility with which their privacy can be degraded.
Cellular service providers are culpable in this reduction of personal privacy. Service plans tout tracking abilities, for example GPS (Global Positioning System) services for drivers and parental monitoring of their child’s whereabouts.
The magistrate judge’s opinions are good news for those who argue that the USA Patriot Act has lowered the standards for probable cause. In one opinion, the judge decided that the debate over digital surveillance goes beyond the question of legal standard. Because digital communications it difficult to distinguish between private and public information. Because the private data are not enclosed within a wrapper, compared to a letter within an envelope, it is difficult to separate the legally protected, private, information, from the legally unprotected, public, transmission management data, such as the identification of the sender and intended recipient.
I’m heartened to hear that federal magistrates are evaluating the complexities of digital technologies, especially those related to communication, and their affect on individual privacy rights. I’m particularly pleased to hear that one of the judges serves in Maryland, my home state.
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