Journal of Information & Privacy Law

Cell Phone Towers Collect More Information Than You Think

By Amanda Busljeta on Monday, October 3rd, 2016
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Exactly how private is your cellphone data? Investigators from Owatonna, Minnesota are currently battling that question with regards to a murder case that involves a 22 year old man found shot dead on June 26, 2016. Two suspects have been charged with second-degree murder, but to help prove the case, investigators filed warrants directed at AT&T and Verizon Wireless. According to reports, the suspects have phone plans with the two cell phone providers, and police want to know more through that information.

The warrants will be used to obtain “Cellular Tower Dumps” and records of call logs and data information. The phones in question utilized a cell tower for approximately 6 hours during the murder, and police want that information to help understand exactly what occurred. The warrant states that the data requested includes: “date, time, duration, originating number, termination number, signal strength and/or round trip time information… and any other information stored in Verizon/AT&T records that can assist in more detailed location of originating or terminating cell phones, for each call serviced by that cell site/sector” during that time period. However, police learning of this information creates a privacy issue. Not only will police see the information from the 2 suspects, but they will be able to observe cell phone detail for any other individual whose phone pinged to that same tower.

Some describe this as “super invasive” and that these warrants are crossing boundaries of what information police can justifiably and reasonably receive. According to Minnesota Statute 299C.13, for warrants that want to collect electronic device information, the police must show that the person who posses the phone is about to commit a crime, or has already done so. The law was passed to prevent police from collecting cellphone location data arbitrarily.

Courts have fought with this issue for years. Some courts characterize this type of cellphone data as “historical cell site location data,” giving the police information about where the individual was without actually going into details from within the phone. The conflict arises of whether or not a warrant is needed for this type of information. For a valid warrant, there must be a proper search. It can be argued that police are “searching” the cellphone data that the cell towers pick up, and in order to obtain the requested warrant to AT&T and Verizon, courts have to determine whether this search is lawful. To decide this, courts turn to the test of: whether the defendant has an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy, and that society must believe this expectation is reasonable.  United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945, 953 (2012).

So where exactly are these investigators with regards to obtaining the warrants? Apparently, the initial warrants filed provided a wrong date. Thus, new warrants are currently being created, still seeking the same information regarding the cell phone tower information.

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