Privacy and Policing

February 25, 2017 by

Studies show most millennials check their phones at least once every hour. This dependence on technology has led to a world where most people avoid being more than a few feet away from their cell phone at any given time.

However, the more we rely on technology, the more detailed a technological footprint we leave behind. Unfortunately, privacy regulations regarding access to that data haven’t kept pace with the advances our society makes.

When cell phone location services are turned on – which is more often than not – your phone records every location you visit. This data is called cell-site location information. Cell-site data can be quite telling, and can even teach someone about themselves and their habits. The problem, however, is that it can easily be used against you, as it can also teach police about a person’s behavior, who they associate with, and even medical information. In some states, procuring the data is even possible without a warrant.

Across the country, police are using this data to track and catch suspects; the resulting cases are often challenged in court. Suspects claim that by accessing their cell phone data without a warrant or probable cause, law enforcement violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. In many instances, although not all, courts have agreed, leading to a patchwork of policies governing how the data can be used.

Texas currently does not require a warrant to be issued for law enforcement to access this data.

Today, essentially any device with the ability to connect to the internet can be a surveillance device.

In a 2016 Arkansas murder investigation, police asked Amazon to provide the audio data from a suspect’s Echo smart speaker. General Motors’ OnStar has been used numerous times by police for both location and audio information captured through their cellular system.

Often known as “stingrays,” cell site simulators are devices able to mimic a cell tower and intercept communications of nearby devices.

During the last legislative session in Texas, a bill was filed by State Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) that would have restricted access to this data by requiring a warrant for cell site simulators. Unfortunately, it was left pending in committee at the close of the session.

The Texas legislature should revisit the issue and identify ways that privacy rights can be protected while ensuring law enforcement has the tools necessary to combat crime.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.