How can your smartphone be used to track your movements?

The widespread availability of smart phones has been a boon to both personal and professional productivity for millions of Americans, but these devices are also compelling testimony to support the truism that there is seldom such a thing as an unalloyed blessing. Aside from well-understood problems such as distracted driving, smart phones also carry the potential to be a tool that can be used against you as well as by you. This is especially true when it comes to the ability of law enforcement to use your phone as a tracking device without your knowledge.

How smart phone tracking works

Chances are that if you live in an area with wireless telephone and data coverage, you are familiar with the site of cell phone towers. These towers provide the interface between your phone and your wireless service provider, and whenever you are within range of a smart phone tower it is in constant background communication with your smart phone. As you move from the communication radius of one tower to that of another, your phone will automatically switch to communicating with the closest tower. Your service provider keeps records of these background communications, which constitute a trail of electronic “breadcrumbs” of your movements.

It did not take police long to figure out that if you are a person of interest or a suspect in connection with a crime, by obtaining your provider’s records of your phone’s “pinging” with cell phone towers they can gain a good idea of where you were and when. If you have watched crime investigation programs on television, you may have seen examples of how police can use these records to catch people lying about where they were at a given point in time, or to place them in the vicinity of a crime scene, or both.

The latest development in smart phone tracking technology is a suitcase-sized instrument known as a “Stingray” device. The Stingray works by masquerading as a cellphone tower, effectively tricking your smartphone into communicating with it as it would with the real thing while saving the data it gathers in the process (and bypassing the need to access your records from your service provider). The beauty – or the sinister nature, depending on how you choose to look at it – of the Stingray is that its small size and portability make it ideal for surreptitious privacy invasions, particularly when it is used without a search warrant. What is more, a Stingray device cannot be individually targeted to pick up only select smartphones. It acts as an electronic vacuum cleaner, gathering information from every smartphone that comes into its range.

Do you have any protection against smart phone tracking?

Now that you understand how your smartphone can be used to track you like an electronic bloodhound, you may be wondering under what circumstances police can get their hands on data recording your movements. The good news is that under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution you have a widely recognized right to privacy against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. The other news is that law enforcement agencies at both the state and federal level as well as federal and state courts have been – if you will pardon the expression – all over the map when it comes to how much protection your privacy expectation gives you against smart phone tracking by the police: some courts have tolerated warrantless Stingray use, while others have required warrants.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the seriousness of the threat posed by Stingray devices is both serious and hard to fully assess. Nationwide at least 60 state-level agencies in more than 20 states and more than a dozen federal agencies (not all of them engaged in law enforcement, such as the IRS) currently use Stingrays, but these figures are almost certainly only a fraction of the actual numbers; many state-level police departments will not say whether they use Stingrays, often because they claim that they are bound by confidentiality agreements to keep such usage secret. It is not known for sure, for example, whether local, county and state police departments in Oklahoma use Stingrays.

Slowly but steadily, privacy concerns have been gaining the upper hand in both states and at the federal level. Current federal policy requires a search warrant before Stingray usage (with a few exceptions), and proposed laws are pending in both state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to formalize the warrant requirement. Still, until such laws are actually put into place the possibility remains that in addition to the “Miranda” warning that “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law” your smartphone might be used against you as well.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, contact the Oklahoma criminal defense lawyers at the Hunsucker Legal Group. Call 405-231-5600 to set up your free consultation.