In a frightening new decision, a federal appeals court says that you have no expectation of privacy when the police want to track your location using your cell phone. U.S. v. Skinner, Case No. 09-6497.
The court said that the police don't need to bother getting a warrant if they want to stalk you by using the GPS signal in your cell phone. This means that sheriffs can freely track Latinos who could be undocumented, the police can see which political meetings you attend, and the cops can learn whether you go to a church or a synagogue.
In a ruling that is right out of the pages of George Orwell's 1984, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, blithely ruled that police efficiency and convenience overrides your right to be free of electronic spying. The case in question involved a marijuana bust, but the ruling applies to the 85% of adults who own a cell phone, a dashboard navigation device and many iPads.
Cell phones keep sending a signal several times a minute even though they are turned off. The only way to stop the GPS signal from a cell phone is to take out the battery, which is nearly impossible for the 75 million consumers who own an iPhone.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this year that the police must get a warrant when they physically attach a GPS device. But the Sixth Circuit ruled that but if you happen to be carrying one already, that's cool -- the government can track you.
In the view of the Sixth Circuit, it is just too much of a hassle for the police to get a warrant to catalog your every movement with your phone's GPS signal. "Using a more efficient means of discovering this information does not about to a Fourth Amendment violation," the court sniffed.
Incredibly, the court equated high-tech electronic monitoring with a bloodhound following a scent or identifying a car by its color. The judges said that GPS tracking of citizens is the same as someone following you on the street.
The Sixth Circuit judges must have gone to law school in a totalitarian country, because they clearly have no concept of most Americans' expectation of privacy.
Think about it: the government now can track you from the sky without a warrant, as well as track all the attendees with cell phones at a political meeting. The can follow you because you attended an Occupy Wall Street protest or because they think you had too many glasses or merlot. If the police get a tip that you're wearing clothes commonly used in a crime, they can literally watch your every step.
"The government should have to get a warrant before tracking cell phones. That is what is necessary to protect Americans' privacy, and it is also what is required under the Constitution," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
In a dissent, Judge Bernice B. Donald said, "... the question is simply whether society is prepared to recognize a legitimate expectation of privacy in the GPS data emitted from any cell phone. Because I would answer this question in the affirmative, I cannot join... the majority opinion.
If you think the police have been tracking you with your cell phone, you should look up a criminal defense attorney on a site like Lawyers.com.
The bottom line is that if you don't want the police to know which doors you knocked on as a precinct committeeman, or whether you went to church or went to a bar, or whether you went to the gym or to see your girlfriend -- leave your cell phone somewhere else. Big Brother is definitely watching you.
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