Monday, December 12, 2011

The Government is Collecting Geolocation Data from Your Cellphone

Just a warning. Reliable sources indicate that the information the U.S. Government is collecting mobile phone geolocation data under a secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. From Reason's blog:
. . . [Senators] Wyden and Udall, both members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have been warning that the Obama administration relies on a "secret interpretation" of the PATRIOT Act to justify surveillance that the general public does not realize is happening. The interpretation involves Section 215 of the law, which authorizes the FBI to demands business records or any other "tangible things" it deems useful "for an authorized investigation. . .
Of course that miserable hack at DOJ is part of the fun. Wyden and Udall condemn Justice's denial of a secret interpretation as "extremely misleading."

Why do some think that this has to do with geolocation? From the Cato Institute' Julian Sanchez:
Department of Justice has developed a novel legal theory, known as the “hybrid theory,” according to which law enforcement may do some types of geolocation tracking of suspects’ cellular phones without obtaining a full-blown probable cause warrant. The “hybrid theory” involves fusing two very different types of surveillance authority. “Pen registers” allow the monitoring, in real time, of the communications “metadata” from phones or other communications devices (phone numbers dialed, IP addresses connected to). For cellular phones, that “metadata” would often make it possible to pinpoint at least approximately—and, increasingly, with a good deal of precision, especially in urban areas—the location of the user. Federal law, however, prohibits carriers from disclosing location information “solely” pursuant to a pen register order. Another type of authority, known as a 2703(d) order, is a bit like Patriot’s business records authority (though only for telecommunications providers), and is used to compel the production of historical (as opposed to real-time/prospective) records, without any exclusion on location information. The Justice Department’s novel theory—which I discussed at a recent Cato event with Sen. Wyden on geolocation tracking—is that by bundling these two authorities in a new kind of combination order, they can do real-time geolocation tracking without the need to obtain a full Fourth Amendment warrant based on probable cause.
Further, there is reason to believe that the information isn't being used in any particular investigation. From the Campaign for Liberty, more from Wyden and Udall:
Section 215 authorities are not interpreted in the same way that grand jury subpoena authorities are, and we are concerned that when Justice Department officials suggest that the two authorities are ‘analogous’ they provide the public with a false understanding of how surveillance law is interpreted in practice.
Why the discussion of grand jury rules? The U.S. Attorney's manual provides that:
It is improper to utilize the grand jury solely as an investigative aid in the search for a fugitive in whose testimony the grand jury has no interest.

Wyden and Udall conclude that:
...locating subjects for the benefit of law enforcement (rather than as a means of securing their testimony before the grand jury) is one of the few things so expressly and specifically excluded.
From this we might conclude that the government is making use of geolocation data for other than ongoing criminal investigations. I could be wrong, but I have to trust my instincts on this one.

I would like to thank this man, Julian Sanchez, for working diligently to work on the behalf of all citizens in the arena of electronic freedom.


  1. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the Patriot Act was adopted WITHOUT public approval or vote just weeks after the events of 9/11. Such an unconstitutional set of laws should be abolished seeing as they violate human rights and due process. A mere 3 criminal charges of terrorism a year attributed to this act, which is mainly used for no-knock raids leading to drug-related arrests without proper cause for search and seizure. The laws are simply a means to spy on our own citizens and to detain and torture dissidents without trial or a right to council. You can read much more about living in this Orwellian society of fear and see my visual response to these measures on my artist’s blog at

  2. The progress in Progressivism is toward slavery.