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Court says police don't need warrants for phone location data

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You would think that police would require a warrant to get your phone’s location info, right? Not according to the US’ Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. It just ruled that asking a company for cellphone location data you’ve offered to a third-party doesn’t represent a search under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, and thus doesn’t need a warrant. According to the judges voting for the decision, volunteering your position info means you’ve given up a “reasonable expectation of privacy” — if you didn’t want to share where you were, you wouldn’t have handed that knowledge over to someone else, would you?

The ruling is in line with what some other courts have said, and ends a split between courts on the topic. However, it won’t be surprising if there’s an eventual Supreme Court challenge. As many would note, it’s virtually impossible to avoid supplying your location at some point. Making a call will offer some basic positional info to your carrier, and many common smartphone tasks (such as navigation or social check-ins) demand that data. Until there’s a ruling to the contrary, though, you can’t assume that the police will have to jump through hoops to find out where you’ve been.

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Jon Fingas

11 Comments

  • No, not the same at all. There is well established doctrine and laws the protect information shared with your doctors, lawyers, priests and spouse. That said, do I agree with this ruling? Absolutely not. I think consumers have or should have the expectation that information collected by a third party app will remain protected and require a warrant, especially when sharing your location is practically synonymous with owning a smartphone… there really is no way around it.

  • So, if I give my wife the pin to my bank account, I shouldn’t expect that my pin will not end up in the hands of any other person? This is stupid. Shouldn’t we have the right to choose whom we share information with? Just because my mom knows that I used to piss the bed when I was younger, doesn’t mean I want anybody else knowing that. Nor should it be ok for them to gain that knowledge without my approval. This would be like saying that anything I have ever shared with my doctor and/or priest is now ok for the police to get to without a warrant. Yet that’s not ok, is it? I know you’re probably thinking, “That’s different.” Though, is it really? Think about it.

  • Well, then in that case they will all correct their terms and conditions and all say the have the right to give away my position to law enforcement at any time should they request it.
    Is that good for the app company? No, they will most probably all fight this.

  • I’m actually kind of surprised this is even an issue.

    The moment you share information with a third party, unless you’ve entered into a legal agreement not to share that information with others (and only if that information is itself legal – you can’t enter into a contract to commit an illegal act or aid and abet an illegal act), then this should have been kind of obvious.

    It’s like people who get bent out of shape when cellcos turn over phone records. They’re not actually violating your rights… they own those data – not you.
  • I agree to allow my phone and its local software to use my location data.

    That does NOT imply my consent to send location data to the developer of the app. (Explicit agreement is still possible.)
  • This is ridiculous! Many, if not most apps or services that request location data explicitly state users can expect privacy regarding the data being collected.. Granted, I don’t think any service guarantees any kind of security or privacy regarding that data. Anyone with any sense would understand a breach of privacy is inevitable.

  • Sorry – but from a legal perspective, you’re quite wrong. When you hand over data, unless there’s either a legal framework for it (like the EU has – but the US doesn’t) or unless you’ve explicitly prohibited sharing of information – then they have every right to use the data as they see fit.

    As for Google, Waze, Uber, etc, are you *sure* you have an agreement with them that they won’t retain or share identifying information? I’ll bet you don’t.
  • BS. You may have an agreement with Google, Waze, Uber, etc but that does not mean you agree to be identified personally. Furthermore that does not mean you agree to being searched by a silent third party which would be law enforcement. Yes they do need a warrant in all cases.

  • Well. I’d be very interested in knowing how the NSA pulls that off.. but even so the NSA is pretty high level. If you don’t need a warrant for your location data then the police can pull it for any reason they’d like.

  • NSA has openly admitted to having the ability to track our locations with our smartphones powered off or a dead battery so I don’t see what’s the point of all this unnecessary drama.

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