A Florida case involving a drug dealer may have changed the face of individual privacy in this country. The police in the case used a few different methods to locate and apprehend the suspect without obtaining a warrant, methods that the Florida Supreme Court has now declared illegal.
In the 2007 case of Shawn Alvin Tracey, the police had a warrant to track the activity on his phone as it pertained to incoming and outgoing phone calls in order to tie in more individuals to Tracey’s drug activity. What they didn’t have permission to do was track Tracey himself via the phone’s connection to various cell phone towers.
They relied on the practice of tracking an individual via his cell phone. The phone, which pings different cell phone towers as it connects even if it’s not in use, then provides a fairly accurate location marker, one that is precise enough to locate someone in a specific apartment in a building the suspect was in. The police accessed this additional information from the telecom company without obtaining a warrant from a judge, which the court has now ruled was a violation of the suspect’s Fourth Amendment right preventing unreasonable search and seizure.
What has come to light due to this case—the first of its kind in the US—is just how widespread the use of a law enforcement device known as a “stingray” has become, with police offices around the country allegedly using the device to skirt telcom restrictions and judges’ orders. This device can operate without requiring permission from the company that owns the cell phone tower and without the service provider even knowing about it; unfortunately, it has also come to light that police have lied to judges and defense attorneys in the past about where the tracking information came from, stating that it was simply provided by a “confidential source” rather than a piece of technology.
There is no argument that the police have an incredibly difficult job to do, and that criminals are constantly coming up with newer, more creative ways to stay one step ahead. But that doesn’t mean that citizens forfeit their rights to privacy and must incriminate themselves. According to the Florida court’s ruling, the use of the technology is still within the police’s power, they just have to obtain a warrant before gathering and using any data provided by a cell phone tower. They must be able to justify to a judge why they are tracking an individual, and will no longer be able to pick someone up in order to do their investigating.
It’s easy to think this isn’t a problem that everyday citizens have to worry about. After all, if you don’t want the police tracking you, then don’t break the law. But that’s not exactly the extent of the privacy issue in this case; after all, if the police can track you, what stops a criminal from tracking you through the same kind of technology? This issue, however, is about our individual rights, and the forfeiture of those rights is a matter that all citizens must take seriously. As our use of technology expands and the understanding of how that technology can and cannot be used expands along with it, we have more need than ever to protect our rights.