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  • Ashley N. Baker

Ruling Celebrated as Fourth Amendment Victory Leaves Unanswered Questions

A federal judge in New York ruled for the first time on Tuesday that the use of a surveillance device to capture cell phone location information constitutes a warrantless search. In the case, Lambis v. United States, government officials used a stingray device to track a drug suspect. Stingrays, also known as “cell site simulators,” force cell phones in the area to transmit signals that pinpoint the user’s location through cell site location information, or CSLI data.

Judge William Pauley, ruling that the use of the stingray device was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, stated that “absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen’s cell phone into a tracking device.” Unfortunately, there is one major problem with his statement: in the absence of surveillance technology, a citizen’s cell phone is already a tracking device.

Earlier this year, a decision from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the use of CSLI data. The case, United States v. Graham, caused a great level of concern among cell phone privacy advocates. In Graham, the data was collected through the cell phone service provider without the use of surveillance technology such as a stingray device. The en banc Fourth Circuit ruled that law enforcement does not require a warrant when asking a cell phone service provider for tracking data. Much like Tuesday’s ruling, the court’s decision in Graham was not based on an analysis of privacy expectation.