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Smerconish: What about the privacy rights for cell phone users?

By Michael SmerconishFollow @smerconish Let me finish tonight with this.Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the use of cell phone tracking data by law

By Michael SmerconishFollow @smerconish 

Let me finish tonight with this.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the use of cell phone tracking data by law enforcement is skyrocketing. The situation raises interesting privacy questions.  

In response to a request from Congressman Edward Markey, cell phone carriers just revealed having responded to 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations, and other information in the course of investigations.  

The requests come from law enforcement on a local, state and federal level. The law is still struggling to catch up with this area of cell phone surveillance. The issue is how to balance law enforcement needs with privacy concerns.

As the Times pointed out, under federal law, the carriers said they generally required a search warrant, a court order or a formal subpoena to release information about a subscriber. But in cases that law enforcement officials deem an emergency, a less formal request is often enough. Moreover, rapid technological changes in cellphones have blurred the lines on what is legally required to get data — particularly the use of GPS systems to identify the location of phones.

In a world where virtually everyone walks around with a cell phone, the ability to track users has become an invaluable tool for police. The question is whether privacy rights of mobile customers are being safeguarded. The carriers report that sometimes what was described as a true emergency was not the case. And what about the cell phone's GPS technology?

Recall that six months ago, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that police violated the Constitution when they attached a GPS tracker to a suspected drug dealer's car without a valid search warrant. That would seem to underscore the need for warrants to always be obtained before phones are tracked.

We want law enforcement to continue to solve kidnappings, prevent suicides, respond to shootings, cases of missing people, and other emergencies. But Congress needs to ensure that there are legal protections in place for customers' privacy and that the mobile industry is in compliance before surrending information.  

One final thought. It comes from "Steve" from the Midwest who posted this comment to the Times' coverage of the cell phone privacy matter:  

The only private communications that exists is the US Postal Service. Nobody will read your letters and you can say anything you like without some computer program picking out "keywords" to flag in a database of suspicious wording.When Congress kills the USPS, our last personal and private means of communication is gone.

To which I would add: Everything old is new again.