Sixth District Court Rules No Privacy Protection with Cell Phone GPS
After a six-year battle, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that Melvin Skinner had no protection of privacy when his pay-as-you-go phone was obtained by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to track Skinner's whereabouts, according to The Wall Street Journal.
In 2006, the DEA knew little about what Skinner actually looked like, but they did know him as Big Foot, a drug mule. He was suspected of leading a major drug trafficking operation through a cell phone. Agents used his phone's GPS data to track him down, which led to his arrest. However, mobile privacy issues arose, as many felt Skinner's Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the agency used his phone against him.
"The law cannot be that a criminal is entitled to rely on the expected untrackability of his tools. Otherwise, dogs could not be used to track a fugitive if the fugitive did not know that the dog hounds had his scent," Judge John M. Rogers wrote for the majority. "A getaway car could not be identified and followed based on the license plate number if the driver reasonably thought he had gotten away unseen. The recent nature of cell phone location technology does not change this. If it did, then technology would help criminals but not the police."
There are already many laws in place regarding the legality of using GPS systems to track criminals, according to Slate. For instance, the Supreme Court recently ruled that law enforcement cannot put a GPS tracking device on a suspect's car. But in this case, the Sixth Circuit said accessing the suspect's phone data wasn't physically trespassing on the suspect's property.