The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects each of us against unreasonable search and seizure by law enforcement. Most of the time, this means that police and other agencies need to obtain a warrant before invading our privacy and conducting searches of our property.
Unfortunately, in the age of big data held by private corporations, our Fourth Amendment protections are constantly under attack. In recent years, several federal agencies have decided to bypass the need to obtain warrants from a judge by buying bulk data collected by private companies.
Some of the most valuable data we generate (from a law enforcement perspective) is location data. The phones in our pockets are essentially personal GPS trackers that transmit our location to the nearest cell towers. Potentially any of the apps on our phones may be collecting this data, which can then be bundled and sold to data brokers. These brokers can then sell it to other interested buyers, including law enforcement agencies.
A news article from August reported that at least three federal agencies have used this tactic to bypass the need to obtain warrants. Those agencies include U.S. Customs & Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and The Secret Service.
Going Around The Supreme Court
In 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled that although cell site location information is a record generated by a non-governmental third party, it should nonetheless be given Fourth Amendment protection. This is not to say that the government cannot obtain these records from third parties. But if and when it does, specific law enforcement agencies need to get a warrant first.
The agencies called out for buying location data have apparently argued that they are not violating the constitution because they aren’t targeting any one person. Instead, they’re buying data in bulk and then sifting through it to find what they are looking for. In some cases, the location data also wasn’t generated by cell towers. It may have been GPS data collected by apps then sold to brokers.
These arguments seem to narrowly comply with the letter of the Supreme Court ruling while clearly violating the spirit of that ruling. The fact remains that government agencies are using privately collected data to track individuals for law enforcement purposes without first obtaining a warrant. There is reason to believe that this practice will only become more widespread as technology advances.
Why government overreach matters
Whether you are accused of drug trafficking, violent crime or any other offense, you are considered innocent until proven guilty. The burden of proof is on the government, and any evidence the government obtains needs to be obtained within the boundaries of your Constitutional rights. If agencies can use taxpayer funds to purchase incriminating data on anyone, our fundamental rights and freedoms are diminished.
On a more personal note: If you are currently facing criminal charges, it is important to examine how law enforcement obtained whatever evidence is being used against you. If the evidence was obtained illegally or improperly, our firm can help you petition the court to have that evidence suppressed so that it cannot be used against you at trial. Contact us to learn more.