Communications and Media

Cell Phone Privacy

Naturally, the cell phone service provider that you use has access to your cell phone records, but it's subject to privacy laws and is supposed to keep your information safely stored away from the public.

Government agencies can access to your cell phone records (including call logs and text records) with a subpoena if you're part of or connected to a criminal investigation or a civil lawsuit. Your cell phone company is required by law to comply with subpoenas that request the records.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA) can subpoena the cell phone company for phone records without a prior warrant as a result of the 2001 Patriot Act in order help prevent acts of terrorism. They can also wire tap, that is, listen and record your cell phone conversations. Moreover, the Patriot Act makes it illegal for the cell phone company that has delivered your records to the FBI or NSA to make it publicly known or even discuss the fact that your phone records have been investigated.

Police Searches of Cell Phones

You may have a legitimate expectation of privacy of the information stored in your cell phone, and so a search warrant may be needed before a police officer can look at your phone's data. However, an officer has the authority to search a cell phone when the search is "incident to an arrest." The search is deemed similar to an office that searches a closed container on or near a person that he's arresting.

Traditional search warrant exceptions apply to the search of cell phones. Where the accessing of memory is a valid search incident to arrest, the court need not decide whether exigent circumstances also justify the officer's retrieval of the numbers from your cell phone. Police officers are not limited to search only for weapons or instruments of escape on the person being arrested. Rather, they may also, without any additional justification, look for evidence of the arrestee's crime on his person in order to preserve it for use at trial.

Illegally Intercepted Communications

Most people would think that public broadcasting of an illegally intercepted cell phone conversation would be illegal. Well, the US Supreme Court has found that the First Amendment allows an illegally intercepted cell phone conversation to be shared with others when the conversation involves matters of significant public interest. The lesson here is to be careful because technology has increased the chances that your cell phone conversations are being recorded and could be made public or used against you.

Cell Phone GPS Tracking

Although there are many advantages to cell phone GPS tracking, there are also privacy concerns. As most people carry their cell phone with them at all times, the ability is in place to track the exact movements of all individuals. Cell phone GPS could prove useful in saving lives during emergencies.

For these reasons the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires wireless network providers to give the cell phone GPS tracking location information for 911 calls that have been made from cell phones. This is known as E911. The law on E911 is fairly explicit. It allows carriers to provide tracking location information to third parties for E911 emergency calls only, however not under any other circumstances whatsoever without the consent of the cell phone owner. Recent court hearings have disallowed the requests of law enforcement agencies to obtain cell phone GPS tracking information from the cell phone companies for suspects in criminal investigations.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What can I do if my cell phone company is giving my information to other businesses?
  • Can the police track my movements through cell phone GPS?
  • How can I stop people from intercepting and recording my cell phone conversations?

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