11th Circuit: The Location of Your Cell Phone Isn’t Private

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You know how Google, Apple, and Microsoft store your phone’s location history to help with searches and app interactivity? Well, a federal appeals court just ruled that none of that information is actually yours and you have no expectation of privacy from it, so courts don’t need a warrant to get it.

“Cell tower location records do not contain private communications of the subscriber,” the court said in its ruling. “This type of non-content evidence, lawfully created by a third-party telephone company . . . does not belong to Davis, even if it concerns him. . . . Davis has no subjective or objective reasonable expectation of privacy in [the phone company’s] business records showing the cell tower locations that wirelessly connected his calls at or near the time of six of the seven robberies.”

This is an obscene and invidious ruling that has enormous implications for yes, your actual privacy. If the cell tower location data that shows where your phone is can from now on be acquired without a warrant, then your physical location is always within reach of government agents.

Nevermind that your phone has layers and layers of privacy settings that keep your GPS and other location data off the grid. Triangulating cell tower data can be just as useful and is now more accessible to the government than it is to you.

As an example of the lengths Google’s Android Lollipop system goes to allow you to protect your location data, the following are screenshots from my phone.

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I have my location settings enabled for maximum app effectiveness, but the privacy of your location is completely up to you in this and all other modern mobile operating systems. You can turn your location data off. You can use only GPS and not network location. You can even completely delete your device’s location history from Google’s servers.

Technically, the cell towers you connect to are a subset of the location data your phone uses, including GPS and wifi network location, but the argument is the same. And the phone’s own privacy settings demonstrate how sensitive that information is. But according to 11 alleged legal (not technological) experts, you have “no subjective or objective reasonable expectation of privacy” to your location. Sleep tight, America.


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