The internet is abuzz over yesterday’s Fifth Circuit decision on cell-site data. And hardly anyone seems to know what they’re talking about, as usual.
It’s to be expected when sources like Wired say “cops can track cellphones without warrants, appeals court rules.” Which is not what the court ruled at all. After all, you can’t expect tech zines to be accurate on the law. And it’s to be expected when tons of people get all upset on sites like Reddit, because they only saw the inaccurate headlines and are now freaking out about something that never happened. But when the usually responsible New York Times jumps in with “warrantless cellphone tracking is upheld,” it might be time to get concerned.
Yes, there is a lot of concern these days with government access of our data. A lot of that concern is legitimate, and a lot is misplaced, but the fact that the conversation is even happening is a wonderful thing. Except the conversation is downright counterproductive when nobody knows what they’re talking about. And such lazy (or deceitful?) reporting isn’t doing anyone any good.
Here’s what the court said, in a nutshell:
1) The government wanted to get historical data of cell sites that were used by certain phones. Not real-time data. Not tracking.
2) Existing law says this is allowed when the government can provide specific and articulable facts that make it reasonable to conclude that the data will be relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.
3) The government did exactly that.
4) The lower court screwed up, and applied the rule for getting real-time data. The lower court needs to do it over again. Period.
All the court did was apply existing law, correctly.
What the ACLU and EFF and others wanted, however, was for the court to break new ground, and create a new legal standard. I am in favor of such things — a court’s not going to do that unless you ask, and I encourage making such arguments at every meaningful opportunity. But this court said it wasn’t going to touch that issue with a ten foot pole. (It did suggest going to Congress, to change the law. Congress passed the statute that enables such requests of phone companies, and right now the statute simply tracks existing Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. But the statute could always impose greater burdens on the government than are required by the Fourth Amendment. The Constitution is a floor, not a ceiling, after all. So why not lobby Congress to amend the relevant statute?)
Or they could, you know, take it up with the Supreme Court and ask them to change their mind on what’s reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The problem, of course, is that the existing rule fits neatly within the general principles of how the Fourth Amendment works.
Basically, the Fourth Amendment comes into play when the government intrudes on something that you would reasonably expect to be private. They’re allowed to do it when they have a warrant based on probable cause to believe they’ll find evidence of a crime or catch a criminal. And they’re also allowed to do it without a warrant if it’s reasonable to let the government do so — when your privacy interests are outweighed by some other concern like public safety.
So the first issue is whether historical cell-site data is something you would reasonably expect to be private. The ACLU and EFF and others say it is. The government says it isn’t. And existing law says that it isn’t. This is the new ground that the court was being asked to break.
Cell site data is not something that you create. The government isn’t going into your phone or your computer to access the data. It’s not yours. Instead, it is a record kept by your phone company. They create the data, and they retain the data.
Cell site data does not contain the contents of your communications. What you’re saying and texting and emailing and posting are not being accessed. It only says what cell tower your phone was using at the time. Which can give a general idea of where your phone was at the time.
Historical cell site data does not tell the government where your phone is right now. It’s not a tracking device. It’s not real time. It just lists the towers your phone was using back then.
This cell site data is created by the business, not by you. And it’s about a transaction which that business engaged in. It’s not just about you. It’s a record of its interaction with your phone. It’s nothing more or less than a routine business record, of the business’s own activity, kept in the ordinary and regular course of business. It’s not about you.
And the government did not compel the business to collect that data.
So when the government goes to the business and says “give us those business records,” it is not so much your privacy that’s being invaded as it is the business’s privacy. The act of getting the data, the act itself, does not require any intrusion into your own privacy. They’re not going into your phone or home or computer to get it.
And the data itself is not something that’s yours to claim as your own private information. You didn’t create it, you didn’t keep it.
But the law does recognize that you do have some expectation of privacy here. Just not anywhere near as much as if you were the one who created or kept the data. So the government has to make some showing that it’s actually relevant to an actual criminal investigation. They just don’t have to show there’s probable cause to believe they’ll get evidence of a crime. It’s a similar standard as for getting a pen register — real-time data of the numbers you’re calling, without overhearing the contents of the communications.
Also, stepping away from your interests for a moment: We don’t want law enforcement* just randomly poking through records for no reason, hoping to chance on evidence of a crime — the Fourth Amendment hates it when that happens. It’s not about your privacy, but everyone’s. So they can’t demand records in bulk. They have to be records of a specific phone, that they have specific reason to believe will be useful. It’s arguable that this consideration is even more important than your privacy interests, when it comes to setting the standard the government has to meet.
In the end, the law just isn’t on the ACLU & EFF’s side right now. They need to change the law, if they want the government to have to jump through the probable cause hoop here. They made a game effort of asking the Fifth Circuit to take the plunge, but the Circuit punted (I love mixing metaphors, don’t you judge me). They can lobby Congress to increase the government’s burden, and whip up public support for it (which is entirely possible), or they can try to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the Fourth Amendment here (yeah, good luck with that).
But this decision broke no new ground. It did not give law enforcement new powers. It did not undermine the Fourth Amendment.
Please, if you’re going to get up in arms about it, do so for the right reasons. Not because you didn’t understand what happened in the first place. And don’t misrepresent what happened to try to foment misinformed popular outcry.
I’m looking at you, New York Times.
*Not the same as national security or intelligence, by the way, but that’s a whole nother discussion.