Government agencies can track cellphone movements through the signals emanating from the handset. The New York Times reports that law enforcement officials have turned to cellular technology as a tool for easily and secretly monitoring the movements of suspects. This kind of surveillance, which investigators have been able to conduct with easily obtained court orders, has come under tougher legal scrutiny. In the last four months, three federal judges have denied prosecutors the right to get cellphone tracking information from wireless companies without first showing “probable cause” to believe that a crime has been or is being committed. That is the same standard applied to requests for search warrants.
The rulings, issued by magistrates in New York, Texas, and Maryland, illustrate the growing debate over privacy rights and government surveillance in the digital age. They could have a “major negative impact,” said Clifford Fishman, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office and a professor at the Catholic University of America’s law school in Washington, D.C. “If I’m on an investigation and I need to know where somebody is located who might be committing a crime, or, worse, might have a hostage, real-time knowledge of where this person is could be a matter of life or death.”Prosecutors, while acknowledging that they have to get a court order before obtaining real-time cell-site data, argue that the relevant standard is found in a 1994 amendment to the 1986 Stored Communications Act, a law that governs some aspects of cellphone surveillance.