Many people have thought about cell phone privacy in relation to its contents (i.e. the feeling you have when someone else is scrolling through your text messages or photos), and we've previously blogged about that issue here. But what about in relation to your whereabouts? Locator abilities on cell phones are an excellent tool to keep you from losing your way, but it may be less comforting to know that your phone's location could also be used by the police, and you may not even know it was happening.
At least one police department in Florida has been using cell phone surveillance to gather information about large groups of people, and they've been keeping it a secret. The department reportedly purchased a surveillance device on loan and promised the manufacturer that they would not share information about its use. Such devices, called "stingrays", are likely being used in police departments across the state as well for tracking down criminals, and this would not be the first time the government has hidden the use of cell phone surveillance.
While police departments may intend to target information on criminal suspects with these devices, "cell site stimulators" (as they're also called) do not differentiate; they will necessarily collect information from innocent citizens at the same time. Not only is this information collection kept a secret from the public, but it has been used in court without the knowledge of judges.
In a recent case in Florida, State v. Thomas, police are reported to have used one of these devices to track a stolen cell phone to a suspect's apartment. Even after permission to enter was denied, the police then searched the apartment and arrested the suspect. The arrest, then, was accomplished entirely through unwarranted searches (the police were entitled to search neither the cell phone data nor the apartment). The police nearly refused to admit to using the stingray when testifying in court; and after it was finally revealed, it was also learned that as of 2010 the Tallahassee Police Department had used the device 200 times without acquiring a warrant and without disclosing its use in court.
The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Florida are working together to combat this secrecy. Last month, the ACLU submitted a motion for public access to sealed records in state court and sent public records requests to nearly 30 police and sheriff's departments across Florida asking for information about their acquisition and use of stingray technology. The right to privacy for Americans is diminishing in our ever more public society (indeed, the definition of privacy may very well never be the same) and it may be becoming more difficult for clear lines to be drawn. But ultimately, if nothing else, we have the right to know we're being watched.