Can the police track your phone’s location without a warrant? Court ruling says no

Why does the NSA need your phone records

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the U.S. states of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, issued a ruling that essentially requires law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants before tracking the location of cell phones. The decision may be used in similar cases across the country, thereby challenging the practice of tracking the physical location of suspects through cell phone towers without a warrant. Privacy advocates hailed the ruling as a Fourth Amendment victory.

The three-judge panel issued the ruling in the United States vs. Davis case. Quartavius Davis was sentenced to 162 years in prison for crimes such as robbery and knowing possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence. Davis was said to have been involved in seven robberies that targeted establishments such as a Little Ceasar’s restaurant, a Walgreens drug store, and a Wendy’s restaurant.

To link Davis to the crimes, the police obtained 11,606 location points, which came to an average of 173 points per day. The phone tracking in this case lasted for 67 days. During the trial, the prosecution presented cell phone location information against Davis, which included a record of the calls he made and the location of the cell towers that carried the calls. The cell site location is said to be sufficient to extrapolate a person’s whereabouts. The authorities gained access to Davis’ phone records through a “D-order” from a federal magistrate judge. To obtain a D-order, authorities only need to claim that information is relevant to an investigation. They are not required to show probable cause.  

“Having determined that the privacy theory of Fourth Amendment protection governs this controversy, we conclude that the appellant correctly asserts that the government’s warrantless gathering of his cell site location information violated his reasonable expectation of privacy,” Circuit Judge David Sentell said in his opinion

“One’s cell phone, unlike an automobile, can accompany its owner anywhere. Thus, the exposure of the cell site location information can convert what would otherwise be a private event into a public one. When one’s whereabouts are not public, then one may have a reasonable expectation of privacy in those whereabouts.”

A coalition comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, who argued the case as a friend of the court, applauded the the ruling, calling it a “resounding defense of the Fourth Amendment’s vitality in the digital age.”

“This opinion puts police on notice that when they want to enlist people’s cell phones as tracking devices, they must get a warrant from a judge based on probable cause. The court soundly repudiates the government’s argument that by merely using a cell phone, people somehow surrender their privacy rights,” said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler said in a press release

Jennifer Granick, the Director of Civil Liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, echoed the ACLU’s praise of the judgment. 

“The opinion, United States v. Davis, is both welcome and overdue. Defendants who have and will be physically tracked without a warrant have new legal support to challenge that surveillance. Additionally, because the case involved stored cell site data, Davis undermines the government’s legal arguments that other warrantless ‘metadata’ collection practices are constitutional,” she said in a blog post.

In spite of the court’s ruling, Davis’ conviction, and his 162-year sentence, still stands. The panel said that law enforcement officials relied on good faith over the magistrate judge’s issuance of a D-order. 


Protect your iPhone or iPad with the IPVanish VPN, on sale through February

One of our favorite virtual private networks for iPhones and iPads, IPVanish, is now offering a huge discount on its two-year subscription as part of its 7th-birthday promotion. Read on to find out more about how this VPN works and how you…
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix right now (February 2019)

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

Stay inside this winter with the best shows on Hulu, including 'Legion'

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.

These are the must-have games that every Xbox One owner needs

More than four years into its life span, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From Cuphead to Halo 5, the best Xbox One games offer something for players of every type.

Verizon is launching real standards-based 5G in 30 cities in 2019

Verizon is in the midst of a massive 5G rollout. In addition to fixed 5G service, it will also begin deploying mobile 5G in the coming months. Here's everything you need to know about Verizon's 5G network and when it will be in your town.

Samsung’s wide range of Galaxy products means there’s something for everyone

Samsung launched a host of new products on February 20, with prices ranging from just $35, all the way up to nearly $2,000. This was not by chance, and the company believes it has something for everyone in 2019.

Stay fit and save cash with our top 10 affordable Fitbit alternatives

As much as we love Fitbits, they're rather expensive. If all you want is a simple activity tracker, however, then check out these great cheap Fitbit alternatives. With offerings from brands like Garmin, you don't need to pay full price.

Samsung Galaxy S10e vs. OnePlus 6T: Can the Flagship Killer survive?

The Samsung Galaxy S10e is the new affordable flagship on the block, but at $750, it's $200 more than the OnePlus 6T. Does the Flagship Killer stand a chance against the new generation of flagship devices? Let's take a closer look.

Make some time for the best smartwatch deals for February 2019

Smartwatches make your life easier by sending alerts right on your wrist. Many also provide fitness-tracking features. So if you're ready to take the plunge into wearables and want to save money, read on for the best smartwatch deals.
Product Review

Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are a brilliant combination of value and comfort

With six hours of battery life, an extremely comfortable fit, sweatproofing, and a very palatable price tag, Samsung’s Galaxy Buds are putting all other true wireless earbuds on notice.

Amazon drops a sweet deal on the Kate Spade Scallop smartwatch for women

Unlike many other smartwatches geared toward women, the Kate Spade Scallop offers a more chic and minimalistic look. With this Amazon sale going on right now, you can get it for $109 off its retail price.

Lyft’s Shared Saver service offers cheaper rides, but you’ll have to walk a little

Lyft has launched a new ride option called Shared Saver that offers cheaper rides if you're willing to walk a little. Shared Saver designates a nearby pick-up point and drops you off a short distance from your final destination.

The 5 best Apple AirPods alternatives for Android, Windows, and iOS devices

Apple AirPods, nice as they are, aren't the only game in town. Other makers are offering their own truly wireless earbuds, and if you're looking to buy a pair of high-end in-ear headphones, we've got the best AirPod alternatives on the…