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Improper Phone Searches

Mar 7, 2016 | by Nation_Inside_Team

The ruling has the potential to set a strong precedent about warrantless location tracking.

This week, a Maryland appeals court affirmed that police departments using cell phone tracking devices without warrants are violating the fourth amendment. One of the most important provisions of democracy, the fourth amendment protects American citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” even really sneaky ones.

Consider the moment historic. From the Intercept:

“The ruling has the potential to set a strong precedent about warrantless location tracking. ‘Police should now be on notice,’ said Nate Wessler, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. ‘Accurately explain your surveillance activities to a judge and get a warrant, or risk your evidence being thrown out.’”

Prying International Mobile Subscriber Identification (IMSI) catcher devices like Stingrays have been in use for decades, now. They’re regularly used by law enforcement agencies around the country to search out and collect and store citizen cell phone data by simulating cell towers. These devices can pinpoint a phone or computer’s location or intercept or block its transmissions.

Authorities claim the technology is only used for detecting and targeting persons of interest. But the hyper-spyware is indiscriminate, sucking up info on anyone who happens to be close by.

And its use against those police deem suspicious has been complicated by cops refusing to seek warrants to do so. The all important, judge-approved legal document provides justification and context for an investigation and search, and generally helps stave off abuses of power. We all know how quickly things go awry when police authorization goes unchecked.

Cell phone tracking warrants further assist our democracy by providing a record of  how cell phone tracking devices are handled. Time and time again, we’ve seen how race and class play into who police scrutinize and why. By dint of being designated “high crime areas,” IMSI catchers are largely used in working class communities of color.  

Here in North Carolina, the situation may have already spiraled out of control. According to an investigation by The Charlotte Observer, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department—made infamous in the wake of the death of Jonathan Ferrell—uses StingRays an average of twice per week.