Should the FBI have to get a warrant to obtain cell phone numbers from cell phone towers?

Obtaining the location of cell phones can be an immense boon to solving crimes. Ars Technica reports on how a string of bank robberies was solved and convictions obtained despite the FBI having been unable to find breakthrough evidence on the scene. Instead they got dumps of cellphone data from around some of the banks that had been robbed and found two numbers that had been to all of those banks. This was then expanded for those numbers to see that they went to towers near the other robberies. This also gave the individual’s identities so allowing a search to turn up more information and arrests. This is a great example of technology working in favour of law enforcement.

Ars Technical also discussed the problem this creates; that in finding the initial numbers the police had to obtain a lot of information. The four towers that were initially looked at had logged 150,000 registered cell numbers meaning the FBI essentially knew roughly where a whole load of people were at a given time, a breach of privacy? While it happened to a large number of people each breach is not particularly large; no one actually will have looked up who had each of those numbers so finding the location of individuals.

However privacy is usually taken to include individual’s location and the problem is that if records from towers can be obtained without a warrant it is easily accessible by law enforcement. In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that tracking suspects with GPS without a warrant is not allowed and the FBI in response switched off 3,000 such tracking devices. Tower records while they may not be as specific as an individual GPS tracker provide this kind of location information for far more people. Warrants should therefore be necessary to obtain such records so as to ensure sufficient oversight of the use of the technique.

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