How Private Are Our Cell Phones?

April 25, 2011

How private are our cell phones?

The short answer: not very.

It’s no secret that using wireless devices of any kind, including cell phones, compromises your privacy.  The Enhanced 911 Act was passed way back in 1999.  Hackers, internet marketeers, and the government were looking for ways to get at our personal information long before that, too. Just last week, news broke that Apple has embedded tracking files in its iPhones and iPads.

The Supreme Court of California has held that police may search a suspect’s cell phone without a warrant.  The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that warrantless cell phone searches violate the Fourth Amendment.

Senator Ron Wyden is now calling for federal legislation to protect U.S. citizens from unconstitutional invasions of privacy. Wyden stated that “I think a lot of people have not really put their arms around the dimensions of this, the fact that everybody’s got a handheld electronic device, a cell phone, a GPS system.”

His proposed law is called  “The Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act”, which would restrict authorities from tracking people through cell phones and other technologies without first obtaining a search warrant. Wyden went on to say that “Everybody’s carrying them around everywhere and probably aren’t thinking that much about the fact that someone may be keeping tabs on them.”

This law would go a long way to ensure some fourth amendment protections, but what about all the information besides our location contained in our devices?

Big Brother watchers will get a good scare after they check out the “mobile forensics” products being manufactured by Cellebrite, and marketed to law enforcement agencies. Cellebrite products can extract evidentiary data from cell phones, including deleted and hidden data.

You don’t need to be paranoid to fear the implications of these products. The American Civil Liberties Union is understandably concerned about potential fourth amendment abuses:

“A device that allows immediate, surreptitious intrusion into private data creates enormous risks that troopers will ignore these requirements (for a warrant) to the detriment of the constitutional rights of persons whose cell phones are searched.”

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