Court: No Location Privacy On Cell Phones

If you use a cell phone, by default you are “opting in” to warrantless surveillance and have no location privacy, according to a federal appeals court this week.

This week, the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals—in a decision that impacts residents in Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia—held that you have no expectation of privacy in historical location data generated by your cell phone. This decision, which follows decisions from four other federal appellate courts, means that now, in the vast majority of states, federal law enforcement agents don’t need to get a warrant to get access to this data from a cell service provider.

Please note that phrase: “federal law enforcement agents don’t need to get a warrant to get access to this data from a cell service provider.”

So how bad is that? Take a look:

In the case, United States v. Graham, law enforcement officers relied on a simple court order to learn each place that Mr. Graham and his co-defendant had travelled for more than seven months. The 221 days worth of data officers obtained on the two defendants contained nearly 30,000 datapoints for each defendant—data that the ACLU discovered could reveal when the defendants were home and when they left home, when their travel patterns changed from the norm, and even that Mr. Graham’s wife was pregnant. This cell site location information (CSLI) was generated every time the defendants’ phones tried to connect with a cell tower to send or receive data.

Map of 29,659 datapoints generated by Mr. Graham's cell phone over 221 days

“Well,” you might be saying, “maybe this guy shouldn’t have gotten arrested for doing illegal stuff.” That’s fine. What happens when the government decides that you should be a defendant for home-schooling your kids, or not renewing your pet license, or any one of the other things that the government decides you did wrong at any given time?

So how did this happen? How is your personal location data suddenly fair game for warrantless surveillance? Third-party doctrine gone crazy, that’s how.

This week the full court overturned its earlier opinion, relying on a wonky legal principle from two 1970s Supreme Court cases called the “third party doctrine.” This principle holds that information you voluntarily share with someone else—whether that “someone else” is your bank (such as deposit and withdrawal information), the phone company (the numbers you dial on your phone), or a government informant—isn’t protected by the Fourth Amendment because you can’t expect that third party to keep that information secret.

But the Fourth Circuit took the third party doctrine further than any case we’ve seen so far. The court held that it didn’t matter if cell site location information could reveal sensitive information about our lives; it didn’t matter how many days worth of data the government got from the service provider; and it didn’t even matter whether we had any idea the phone was generating the data or had any real control over when or where the phone generated data. Purely because that data was shared with a service provider, the Fourth Amendment didn’t protect it.

The bigger problem isn’t solved by dumping your cell phone, either. If simply using a device means you ‘consent’ to being tracked and surveilled, then the Internet of Things (IoT), as it’s called, is suddenly given a massive green light to do whatever it wants to you. Your smart TV, wifi-linked bathroom scales and kitchen appliances, and a thousand other sensors and data collectors, constantly gathering information about everything from what time you go to sleep to what you eat to recording what you talk about in the privacy of your own home. If you buy the device, according to the court’s opinion, then you agree to all of its features—including the ones that are creepy and wrong.

Meanwhile,’s CEO made a remark you should know about yesterday.

Huffman was asked by Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten how the company planned to increase monetization of its content.

He cited Facebook’s success in “making people accept in line native ads” but added that Reddit’s “targeting will be different” because it knows even more than Facebook about its users.

“We know all of your interests. Not only just your interests you are willing to declare publicly on Facebook – we know your dark secrets, we know everything,” said Huffman.

Oh, and as long as we’re discussing such things…remember these quotes?

Loveable Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called his first few thousand users “dumb f*cks” for trusting him with their data, published IM transcripts show. Facebook hasn’t disputed the authenticity of the transcript.

…and then there’s Google CEO, Mr. “Don’t Be Evil” himself:

If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Those of you who scream catchphrases like “That’s unconstitutional!” would do well to note the following:

  1. The government does not care one iota about your Constitution.
  2. The Constitution itself is a piece of paper; it means jack squat if one party doesn’t follow it and the other doesn’t make them.

Think about that next time you leave your house with a cell phone…or talk about anything IN your house, for that matter.

It’s not paranoia if they admit they’re after you.

Author: Kit Perez

Kit Perez is a liberty activist, longtime writer, and intelligence analyst specializing in deception detection and HUMINT. She is prior Air Force, holds a degree with honors in Counterintelligence and has a Master's in Intelligence. She writes at

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