D.C. Court Decides It’s Unconstitutional for Police to Track your Phone Without a Warrant

D.C. Court Decides It’s Unconstitutional for Police to Track your Phone Without a Warrant

A Washington, D.C. court has decided that it’s unconstitutional for law enforcement to track the phones of Americans without a warrant.

Earlier today, the DC Court of Appeals decided that law enforcement’s use of one popular tracking tool, a cell-site simulator, to track a suspect’s phone without a warrant, violates the US Constitution.

The decision is a landmark ruling for privacy and Fourth Amendment rights. Many are declaring it as a victory for the personal freedom of citizens over law enforcement.

For law enforcement, the decision is likely to have broad implications for how police use cell-site simulators, a popular tool used to track mobile phones.

How Do Cell-Site Simulators Work?

Cell site simulators mimic cell phone towers, which means a suspect’s phone connects to the simulator instead of to the regular network.

The suspect interacts with his or her phone as normal, while law enforcement officials operate as a “man in the middle”, watching all of the information sent and received over the network.

Typically, law enforcement officials use a specific type of cell-site simulator called a Stingray. Law enforcement’s use of Stingray devices has been controversial for years.

In this latest case, the DC Court of Appeals was looking at a specific incident where law enforcement used a cell site simulator to convict a robbery and sexual assault suspect. That conviction was later overturned after it was deemed that law enforcement’s use of the cell-site simulator was unconstitutional.

The DC Court of Appeals decided that the use of a cell-site simulator “to locate a person through his or her cellphone invades the person’s actual, legitimate and reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her location information and is a search.”

The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…”. The use of cell-site simulators was found to violate that right.

Cell-Site Simulators Can Be Used for SMS Tracking and More

Cell-site simulators are surprisingly powerful tools for law enforcement. Think of all of the information you send to a cell phone tower on a daily basis – from SMS messages to images to your cloud account. Law enforcement officers who use cell-site simulators literally simulate a cell network antenna.

Meanwhile, as reported by CBS News, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has repeated emphasized a tougher approach to crime, which has worried some privacy advocates in regards to the possibility of police aggressively using cell-site simulators. This latest ruling could put some privacy advocates at ease.

A report from December 2016 shows that US taxpayers spent $95 million on 434 cell-site simulator devices between 2010 and 2014. They’re certainly not cheap: each simulator is priced at around $500,000.

What this Means for You

Ultimately, the most important thing you need to know about this issue is that police will be forced to obtain a warrant before they access in-depth personal details from your smartphone. Police are still free to use cell-site simulators – and other advanced SMS tracking tools – but they need to obtain a warrant to avoid violating a suspect’s Constitutional rights.

So you can’t afford a $500,000 cell-site simulator, but you still want to track SMS messages? Download SpyStealth today to get all of the SMS tracking functionality of a cell-site simulator at a fraction of the cost. With SpyStealth, users can monitor text messages, track GPS locations, view call details, photos, and social media activity, among other phone-based activities.