The government has been using people’s cell phones to track their current locations, and past locations, for some time without a search warrant. When a person has a cell phone, it sends a ping to the nearest cell phone tower. Cell phones with GPS devices, which include most of them these days, send the electronic ping signals constantly. Law enforcement officials can track this signal to get an approximate location on a person. They can also obtain this data to determine if a person was in a particular location at a particular time. The government has been using this cell phone data to track and learn people’s locations for a while, and they have been doing so without first obtaining a search warrant.
A recent study by the ACLU found that many police departments were tracking people through their cell phones with little or no court oversight. Very few of the police agencies that were tracking cell phone signals had applied to a court for a search warrant in advance. Currently there is a bill moving through Congress that would end this practice and require law enforcement agencies to get a search warrant from a judge before they could access a person’s location through his/her cell phone signals. Another bill moving through Congress would require a search warrant before a police officer could track a person’s current location, but not a person’s prior location. The Obama administration is against the search warrant limitation for tracking one’s cell phone. They argue that a person does not have an expectation of privacy in his/her cell phone signals that are transmitted through a wireless carrier and it would be too burdensome on government officials to get a search warrant every time prior to tracking one’s cell phone.