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United States Communications Privacy Technology

Justices Ponder Need For Warrant For Cellphone Tower Data (apnews.com) 200

An anonymous reader shares a report: Like almost everyone else in America, thieves tend to carry their cellphones with them to work. When they use their phones on the job, police find it easier to do their jobs. They can get cellphone tower records that help place suspects in the vicinity of crimes, and they do so thousands of times a year. Activists across the political spectrum, media organizations and technology experts are among those arguing that it is altogether too easy for authorities to learn revealing details of Americans' lives merely by examining records kept by Verizon, T-Mobile and other cellphone service companies. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court hears its latest case about privacy in the digital age. At issue is whether police generally need a warrant to review the records. Justices on the left and right have recognized that technology has altered privacy concerns. The court will hear arguments in an appeal by federal prison inmate Timothy Carpenter. He is serving a 116-year sentence after a jury convicted him of armed robberies in the Detroit area and northwestern Ohio.
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Justices Ponder Need For Warrant For Cellphone Tower Data

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  • TFA and the summation do not state. How did LEA get the data? Did the Telco give over the information voluntarily? Yes? No search warrant needed. No? Search warrant needed. Lets not forget, this is their data, not ours. We signed away the ownership of that kind of data a long long time ago.
    • Unacceptable. This is not public information; even voluntary release of your information by the tower operator should be considered a search of your private dealings. We have wire tapping laws because you can just ask the telco to tap a persons line--voluntary release of data by the telco--and that serves as a stand-in for illegally entering your house without a warrant and placing listening devices (search).

      Obtaining non-public information from a third party is akin to wire tapping. It's not the sam

      • It is not public information, but it is also not yours, or my information that we own. It is like getting the video from the liquor store cameras to ID the bastard that just robbed it.

        It is exactly the same thing, information about your whereabouts from a third party. No warrant needed.

        And if you think that only the Cell companies are tracking your every move, you're very mistaken. Every large box store, every website, every app, everything you do is being tracked right now. Short of being a luddite cave dw

        • by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Monday November 27, 2017 @02:45PM (#55631325) Homepage Journal

          It is not public information, but it is also not yours, or my information that we own. It is like getting the video from the liquor store cameras to ID the bastard that just robbed it.

          In which case you know there was a robbery and you have reason to believe the video contains the details of the crime.

          That's a bit different than walking in and saying, hey, give me all the video on this guy. No reason, just I want it. It's also a bit different from the liquor store reporting a crime and surrendering video related to the details of that crime: they're not under law enforcement order to surrender that information, and are attaching it as relevant to a crime which has been committed against them.

          Further, places with CCTV announce they have CCTV. This is to avoid laws forbidding them from recording you without consent of all involved parties.

          By contrast, your cell phone provider may or may not be storing data about you long-term, but is presumably recording information for a time—long enough to keep track of where you are at the moment, so the towers function, at a minimum. If you commit a crime against their network, they have every right to bundle relevant data up and submit it with their complaint to the police or courts. Typically, the police initiate the contact, and request they surrender data about you.

          There's no reason the government should be allowed to arbitrarily poke into non-public information about you. If they don't have and cannot obtain a warrant, they shouldn't be allowed to thumb through private data at their leisure to build a case about your contact patterns so as to open up an investigation against you. No, they shouldn't be allowed to just request CCTV data, either--your shop can volunteer the relevant recordings when reporting a crime, and they can ask you for the relevant recordings if the next guy over got robbed and they believe you captured something of that, as they'll have a warrant for obtaining that data.

          • 1) As a libertarian, I would prefer a vastly more limited government that fought real crimes like theft, and assault and less on non-crimes like drugs and alcohol.
            2) As a libertarian, I would prefer the corporate guardians of information said "Can I have a warrant please" and not willingly give up information just because it is the police. In fact, I would prefer if EVERYONE said that to a cop when they ask questions.
            3) The world isn't libertarian, but is tending more towards the fascism (real kind, not the

          • In which case you know there was a robbery and you have reason to believe the video contains the details of the crime. That's a bit different than walking in and saying, hey, give me all the video on this guy. No reason, just I want it.

            The story did not say that the police went to the phone company and asked for location data about every person in the area. They asked for a specific person's data. Why? Because they had a reason to believe the info relates to the crime.

            Further, places with CCTV announce they have CCTV.

            People carrying a cell phone are being tracked by the cell company.

            If you commit a crime against their network, they have every right to bundle relevant data up and submit it with their complaint to the police or courts.

            Two points you just made here. First, they own that data and can use it as they see fit without asking you. Second, they keep the data so they can prove any crimes, which may not come to completion for month

            • So the CCTV images collected by the store or company you are near don't belong to them, they belong to you?

              They don't belong to the police, they're not public information, and the police can't walk in and demand videos of you.

              You admit that the cops can ask for data. If the company gives them the data just by asking, they don't need a warrant. If they have a warrant, it isn't "asking" anymore.

              There have been attempts to force them to turn over data without a warrant. Lots of attempts. The judge pondering the need for a warrant is completely-irrelevant unless the police are allowed to force the release of data without a warrant in one scenario.

              You've admitted that a telephone company can release location data about you if they are reporting a crime you've committed against them.

              Yep. They have the right to do that, they have standing, and they're reporting a crime. They're volunteering evidence.

              If the polic

              • They don't belong to the police, they're not public information, and the police can't walk in and demand videos of you.

                They can, however, ask, and be given, without requiring a warrant. That's the point here. The plaintiff here says a warrant is needed. You and I seem to agree that one is not. You want to go further and talk about whether the police can demand something without a warrant, but that's outside the scope of this legal issue.

                If the police order you to allow them to search your house, sans warrant,

                Nothing about this case deals with the police ordering anything.

                Wiretapping laws actually go further: the police can't tap the phone lines just because Verizon says it's okay;

                This case has even less to do with wiretapping. Getting location data is not wiretapping.

        • by msauve ( 701917 )
          It is like getting the video from the liquor store cameras to ID the bastard that just robbed it....No warrant needed."

          But a warrant is needed if the liquor store owner doesn't want to voluntarily give up the video. And a warrant is justified for a reasonable search, since it's virtually a certainty that the thief is on the video.

          Getting location records for thousands of cellular customers is an unreasonable search. No only is it not certain that the perp is in the data, it is a certainty that the vast ma
          • Getting location records for thousands of cellular customers is an unreasonable search.

            The story is about location data for one cellular customer. The court case is about that one convicted criminal.

        • It is like getting the video from the liquor store cameras to ID the bastard that just robbed it. It is exactly the same thing, information about your whereabouts from a third party. No warrant needed.

          They are not the same thing. If a liquor store gets robbed THEY are the ones calling the cops and they are the one providing the tape. First party. The phone company isn't the one calling the cops so they are a third party. Can you not see the difference? Police can go and ask but the phone company should be under no obligation to comply without a warrant. Likewise if they suspect that a liquor store might have footage of the guy who robbed some other store nearby the police can ask but the liquor sto

          • Police can go and ask but the phone company should be under no obligation to comply without a warrant.

            That's significantly different than the claim that the police MUST have a warrant just to ask. Can you not see the difference? The issue is not if the phone company was under an obligation to comply, it is about the cops asking and the company complying.

            My legal right to privacy doesn't change just because someone is nosy.

            But it does change when you voluntarily carry a device that someone else can use to track you. "I am carrying a device that responds to regular pings from a fixed land-based radio system that has the ability to triangulate where I am" is a significant state

          • Yeah, well this liquor store uses a security monitoring company and they store the video off site. Now we're right back where we started. You still haven't made the logic work.

            In fact, to make the analogy more accurate, we would have to stipulate that the thief could only commit robberies when there were at least three corporate owned cameras focused on him in public. Trying to claim the identity and location of the thief is private information now seems pretty goddamned silly, yes?

            Look, its not about so

      • This is not public information

        Yes and no. If the location is only record by the cell company, no it is not public. However if law enforcement adds antennas to CCTV and other government equipment, then location may be public. Your cell phone is broadcasting a signal via radio. Law enforcement may be able to passively listen and log, not emulate a cell phone tower, but just listen to broadcast radio signals. The matchmaking signals between equipment, not the conversation between people?

        • That requires a method for identifying the individuals represented by each signal. The IMEI identifies the phone itself; the IMSI identifies the SIM card. The connection is encrypted, although I'm unclear about whether the IMEI is encrypted.

          Listening would be akin to eavesdropping, which is also illegal without a warrant in many jurisdictions. This eavesdropping may not be currently illegal; perhaps it should be. I dislike mass data gathering--what is called domestic spying.

          • by drnb ( 2434720 )
            I'm only referring to the most basic level, that first part of the "handshake" where the phone broadcasts to all "is anyone there?". Last enforcement could listen to that to determine proximity to their various antennas. That signal will be pretty hard to argue as being private. If that is logged and law enforcement arrests a person and has their cell phone they can examine logs to determine where that cell phone has been.
            • Right, and I'm saying we potentially need to expand eavesdropping laws to prevent that kind of data gathering.

              Imagine if they put cameras on all the telephone poles, used face recognition software to track you--moving from frame to frame, they can identify which bodies are the same, and have few individuals to compare, thus high accuracy--and thus had a database of everywhere you've gone. They can track your car, your face, your clothing. They have a full log of every movement you've made.

              Would that

              • Would that be something you want the government (or anyone) doing?

                You can't put toothpaste back into the tube. Don't walk into a major airport, they already do this. Don't walk into any major retailer, they already do this. Don't drive down any major freeway, they already do this. Don't park in any parking lot or space where there is a time limit, they already do this.

                You are in plain sight. If you are in plain sight, don't expect privacy laws to protect you from being seen.

    • This case is seeking to overturn the "we signed away the data". As in, we signed away the data cause the telcos needed it to do a job. This is trying to reverse that law so just giving them access to do a job doesn't mean they own the data.

      Also, you do not need a search warrant to get telco data. Since it's their data on you, you have no 4th amendment rights. And, since it's their data on you, they have no 4th amendment rights. I mean, they can charge something because it costs them money to comply, bu

    • by msauve ( 701917 )
      "Lets not forget, this is their data, not ours."

      Let's not forget, most cell companies today have contractual privacy policies [verizon.com] in place which promise to safeguard such information unless disclosed "to comply with valid legal process." Additionally, Federal law (47USC222) specifically burdens cellcos with maintaining such records in confidence. It's not "their data" to do with as they want.

      Contrast to Smith v. Maryland, where the court's reasoning for not requiring a warrant for so-called "meta-data" hinged
      • "Additionally, Federal law (47USC222) specifically burdens cellcos with maintaining such records in confidence. It's not "their data" to do with as they want."

        Looking at it another way, one could get the distinct impression that the Feds think this data is theirs, the telcos are just collecting and storing it for later use in prosecutions.

    • How did LEA get the data?

      Some of the guys in the gang started talking, and mentioned that Timothy Carpenter was at all of the burglaries. The cops decided to see if his cell data confirmed what the were saying. So they asked the cell company, and lo and behold, the cell tower pings match what the other people were saying.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      A cell-site simulator, digital analyzer. The IMSI-catcher gets it all.
      Once LEO knows of everyone in the area over days, weeks, months it just a GUI map to replay that day, hour, time.
      The more wealthy cities, states, federal/state funded police efforts have long term voice prints collections at a city/state level too :) Swapping a phone, buying a new cell phone is no protection from mil grade voice print collection thats now at big city contractor prices.
      Just never let a good lawyer find the city/state
  • by superdave80 ( 1226592 ) on Monday November 27, 2017 @02:09PM (#55630969)
    If you have to think about it for too long, then you should err on the side of individual rights. When, exactly, did getting a warrant become such a burden on law enforcement?
    • > When, exactly, did getting a warrant become such a burden on law enforcement?

      Shortly after the police discovered they could get access to information they wanted, and as soon as they realized they could get it faster without a warrant.

  • Life sentence... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by b0s0z0ku ( 752509 ) on Monday November 27, 2017 @02:22PM (#55631101)

    The accused in the case robbed some Radio Shacks and cell phone stores and (ironically) stole phones. He didn't kill or seriously maim anyone.

    How does what amounts to a life sentence make sense for this crime? Especially while pharma CEOs who get people hooked on opioids, polluters who cause cancer clusters, etc walk free.

    Answer: it was his punishment for requesting a jury trial, not entering into a plea bargain under threat of a severe sentence. This case embodies a lot of what is wrong with the American injustice system. Even if you have no sympathy for the accused, remember that the taxpayers will be paying to jail him for life, instead of giving him a reasonable sentence and rehabilitating him.

    This is money that can be spent on other services or simply returned to the taxpayers. Beyond disgusting.

    • How does what amounts to a life sentence make sense for this crime?

      Because robbery with a firearm carries a minimum mandatory sentence. He was convicted of several counts, which all add up. I have mixed feelings about this - the sentence seems excessive, but this wasn't a single lapse in judgement. He's a violent criminal, and society may very well be better off with him locked up, cost be damned. I don't know what the parole rules are for federal armed robbery, but I suspect he'll be released earlier than his life sentence would let on.

      • Congress abolished Federal parole in the 1980s. At most, he'll get ~25% credit for time served, which is still essentially a life sentence.

        He WAS a violent criminal at one point in his life. Without knowing the background, he might well be able to be rehabilitated. Cases like this are why mandatory minima and lack of parole based on actions in prison are a bad idea.

        Obama and his attorneys general were moving towards a fairer sentencing regime. I suspect that Trump and his evil elf from Alabama will undo

    • According to the decision [brennancenter.org] it wasn't just robbery:

      At his signal, the robbers entered the store, brandished their guns, herded customers and employees to the back, and ordered the employees to fill the robbersâ(TM) bags with new smartphones.

      There's a world of difference between shoplifting or even smashing a window and stealing phones after closing and an armed robbery where you put a gun to the face of some poor clerk. In the former cases, I would probably be inclined to leniency and rehabilitation (at least for the first 8 offenses) because they are crimes that don't involve direct violence against another human being.

      I would also be inclined to leniency if this was a one-time offense or some

      • Your and my definitions of "leniency" just differ. A harsh sentence for a non-murder crime (remember, people were threatened, not actually harmed) should be 15-20 years, not life. Leniency would be something like 1-5 years.

        That's the way it works in most of the civilized world outside the US. A system that locks up 1% of its adult residents is broken.

        • I agree. 15-20 years for threatening people with a gun during a robbery, multiplied by at least 6 separate instances. Even at the low end of your range, that's 90 years.

          I would like to reduce incarceration in the US, and I think there's plenty of scope to do that by treating drug addictions as a medical problem and by rehabilitating those not convicted of violent crimes.

          On the record that's before us, this guy just isn't a candidate.

          • Should be served concurrently -- the crimes were over a short period of time. The number of instances doesn't really speak to his willingness to re-offend in a decade or two.
            • So basically your position is that once you commit a crime, you should be able to commit additional instances of that crime for no additional penalty? It's like a buy-1-get-7 free deal! Rob one bank, get 15 years in jail. Rob another 3, that's fine it's still just 15 years in jail.

              In that system, you would be stupid not to be a repeat offender!

              • Make it an asymptotic curve with a max sentence or something like that :)
                • I mean, for most crimes it's a steeply ascending scale. First DUI, fine and 90 day suspension. Second DUI, 7 days in jail and a year suspension. Third DUI, 6 months prison, felony conviction, lifetime suspension.

                  I think we as a society recognize that one-time criminals can often be rehabilitated and that harsh sentences right off the bat are both unjust and perpetuate crime by making it nearly impossible for folks to reintegrate. That's why most sentencing scales upwards, not downwards, as the number of cri

          • Whoops, it was actually 8 separate instances, not just 6. So taking 15 years (your low estimate) times the 8 instances, gives 120 years, which is a hair above what he actually got.

            In any case, 90 or 120 is pretty much the same sentence.

      • Was anyone killed or injured during these robberies? The fact they were armed with guns doesn't mean they intended to use those guns, it certainly introduces a lot more risk that such a thing could happen, but not 116 years worth.

        More over, is someone who commits eight armed robberies eight times as bad as someone who commits one? Or four times as bad as someone who commits two? If not, then why do the sentences occur concurrently?

        I draw a distinction between someone who is a one-time armed robber vs someon

        • Especially if you provide educational/career-training opportunities (other than in crime from other inmates) while they are jailed for 10 years.

          Yeah, one can make the argument that those opportunities aren't provided free to the public at large, but they SHOULD be. Free/cheap community college is a great thing -- glad that more enlightened states are floating the idea.

        • Ask anyone who has actually experienced it, and they will concur: having a gun put up to your face in anger is definitely an injury.

          I also draw a distinction between a one-time armed robber and a repeated & premeditated one. I though I called that out as a major factor in leniency.

          As far as repeat offenders go, you understand that by "discounting" later occurrences you are actually incentivizing a criminal who has already committed one count to keep committing them right?

          • (1) I've had a gun pulled on me by some stupid kid in a carjacking. I don't actually wish that kid death (or a lifetime in prison) if he was caught. The human brain doesn't fully develop until the mid-20s -- kid was maybe 15 and may have been pushed into doing it by older peers. This experience didn't make me more authoritarian or more likely to support "law and order." Rather, I saw the total uselessness of the police in this instance. (They found the car, then it disappeared from their impound lot.)

            • Yes, I would consider the immaturity of the defendant as a mitigation in sentencing.
              Yes, I would consider that the ringleader (like Mr Carpenter) is more culpable than a kid "pushed into doing it".
              Yes, being a victim of crime doesn't make you more 'law and order' or trust the police.

              I think we agree more than we disagree here.

    • by Tailhook ( 98486 )

      He didn't kill or seriously maim anyone.

      These robberies involved repeatedly threatening people with firearms. It was pure luck no one got killed.

      it was his punishment for requesting a jury trial

      The huge delta between negotiated sentences and the consequence of jury trials is a reflection of how great the distance is between citizens and their rulers in the US. We use to hang people for this shit and I can't think of any good reasons why we aren't doing that today; just a lot of bad ones.

      • The huge delta between negotiated sentences and the consequence of jury trials is a reflection of how great the distance is between citizens and their rulers in the US. We use to hang people for this shit and I can't think of any good reasons why we aren't doing that today; just a lot of bad ones.

        Agreed on the first part.

        Disagreed on the second part. We also used to:
        * Lynch people of different races who chose to enter into a relationship
        * Not allow people of different races to share public facilities

      • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

        We use to hang people for this shit and I can't think of any good reasons why we aren't doing that today; just a lot of bad ones.

        Because sometimes the justice system makes mistakes, and when an innocent person is put to death, there is no way to make them whole again.

    • What are you talking about pinko libtard commie...

      The whole world knows You! Yes!! Yay!!! has the best justice money can buy. OK?

  • 116 Years?!? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by quantaman ( 517394 ) on Monday November 27, 2017 @02:22PM (#55631109)

    Armed robbery is bad, and multiple armed robberies is worse, but 116 years seems like overkill.

    I know it's not the point of the article... but I feel like the sentencing algorithms have some bugs.

    • Bugs? No. They're features.

      The laws are just written and enforced by authoritarian garbage for the most part. The scum WANT cops and prosecutors to be able to bully accused people into a plea bargain under threat of a life sentence, instead of allowing people to exercise their God given right to a jury trial.

      The US is far from a "free country" -- it has an authoritarian and Puritanical streak as wide as the country itself.

    • after decades of "Tough on Crime" laws just about anything more serious than jaywalking will put you away for at least 50. Most folks plea bargain. The crazy long sentences give prosecutors incredible leverage (nevermind the fact that their resources are virtually unlimited while the defense gets about 2 hours a case). He probably took it to court thinking their evidence was flimsy, but jury trials mean justice is more a popularity contest than anything about logic and reason.

      Our entire system is designe
      • are the media pimps and lobbyists who make money on people remaining afraid, despite crime being at a 50 year low, and the US generally being a safe country.

        Though I'm not going to excuse the American voters just because they're "frightened," either.

  • As the oral arguments for this case will be heard Wednesday, you'll be able to download the Argument Transcripts [supremecourt.gov] on Wednesday afteroon, or Thursday Morning.

    While the questions asked don't necessarily indicate how judges are leaning on the case, as they will sometimes act as devil's advocate, it's still worth checking out as a rough guide to what they think are the important elements are to the case.

  • thieves tend to carry their cellphones with them to work. When they use their phones on the job, police find it easier to do their jobs. They can get cellphone tower records that help place suspects in the vicinity of crimes

    Or not.

    Just give your cellphone to a "friend" and have them make a few calls from somewhere a long way from where you are "working". Alibi established!

    Even if it doesn't hold up, it could remove you from the list of "usual suspects" for at least the first phase. And you never know, the cops might stitch up someone else for your crimes. So for the small inconvenience (unless you like taking selfies as you break in) of laying a false trail, you'd have to think that criminals would already be doing this. I

  • Foul owls tend to know their own kind and they are bright enough to have friends carry their cell phones to destinations that will confuse and misdirect those trying to follow them from cell tower reports. In other words those same records could be used as a false proof that a bad guy did not commit a crime. In a way it is a form of discrimination against the ignorant as those who are stupid go to prison while those with a bit better intelligence or education use a law enforcement tool to establish fal
  • Define a cell phone? This is a serious question.

    Imagine a city that has created a metro wide WiFi network for all the poor poor people in the city to read books, get the weather, and take college courses from home. Now imagine this same city is arresting drug dealers, pick pockets, and petty criminals based on their cell phone location data. A cell phone is required to have accurate location data for 911 service. Removing the SIM card will still allow a phone to call 911 and get it's location. Presumab

    • The average criminal isn't going to do that. Frankly, if they were as smart as you say, they would just leave the cell phone at home while committing crimes.

      • Imagine a drug dealer getting caught for selling drugs. In the case the cell phone records are used in the conviction. This drug dealer goes to prison and while there runs into someone that's smart enough to hide his tracks well but caused enough trouble that significant resources were used to catch him. This white collar criminal is now teaching the drug dealer in prison how to not get caught again by not carrying a cell phone but instead using a different device to communicate.

        Sure, they can leave thei

  • mandate warrants (Score:5, Informative)

    by Jodka ( 520060 ) on Monday November 27, 2017 @04:05PM (#55632071)

    Of course warrants should be mandated. Without monitoring and checks, the victims of police have little or no protection or legal recourse. To prevent abuse the police should be monitored and checked constantly in every way feasible while on the job. Here are just a few of the recent examples of police corruption and abuse.

    - In Denver, the police are stealing cars [reason.com].

    - In New York, police handcuffed and raped a teenager. [independent.co.uk] Then over a dozen other cops threatened the victim [huffingtonpost.com] to prevent her from reporting the crime.

    - Police steal more than criminals. [coyoteblog.com]

    - In Utah a cop who assaulted and arrested [nydailynews.com] a nurse for objecting to his inappropriate demands to draw blood from a suspect.

    - In Los Angeles a cop was caught by his own body cam [cbsnews.com] planting drugs on a suspect.

     

  • by tdelaney ( 458893 ) on Monday November 27, 2017 @04:46PM (#55632361)

    I don't think there should be a high bar for being able to search mobile tower records, but there should be a bar.

    Specifically, I think any search must first be lodged with the judiciary with full details as to the scope of and reason for the search. And telephony providers should have full audit trails of what searches were performed so it can be verified that the searches complied with the scope.

  • The case centers around a person's cellphone tower location logs, but the broader issue is the government's access to tracking data no matter its collection process. These days location data comes from many sources including facial recognition, license plate readers and smart tags. In the future it will probably include drones and driverless vehicles.

    The ruling needs to say that a warrant is required for the government to access location data, no matter who or how it was collected.

  • This is no different than asking people at a scene of crime, "hey who did you see around here, a crime was committed?". Verizon, T-Mobile etc are just witnesses .

    Note Stringray devices are a different story.

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