If you own an iPhone, Android or even some obsolete flip phone, government agencies can track every move you make—no warrant necessary. According to a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling on July 30, law enforcement at all levels of government can collect the cellphone location records of American citizens to find out exactly where they eat, sleep, work, pray and play. The justices ruled that there was no requirement under the Constitution to obtain a warrant prior to collecting such information.
Most modern cellphones are equipped with a global positioning system, or GPS technology. This technology tracks a phone's location and sends that location data to cell service providers like Verizon and AT&T. In their decision, the Fifth Circuit justices argued that mobile device location data are "business records" and therefore not subject to the safeguards of the Fourth Amendment.
The decision has privacy-minded Montanans on high alert.
"Montanans wouldn't want law enforcement to walk into their homes without a warrant," says Niki Zupanic, the public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. "They don't want law enforcement to walk into their email or phone records without a warrant either."
Montanans have already taken strides at the state level to protect themselves from this kind of government surveillance. When lawmakers passed a cellphone location tracking bill earlier this year, Montana became the first state in the nation to explicitly prohibit state and local law enforcement from collecting location information from an "electronic device" without first obtaining a warrant. House Bill 603 received a wide margin of support in both chambers of the legislature and was signed into law May 6 by Gov. Steve Bullock.
"[HB 603] was widely supported because there is something fundamentally wrong and un-Montanan about people being able to track your every move," says Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, who worked to ensure the bill's passage. "Spying on innocent Montanans is wrong."
Despite successes at the state level, civil liberties advocates say the recent Fifth Circuit Court ruling is a reminder that there is still work to do.
"The bill that was passed in Montana only applies to state and local law enforcement," Zupanic says. "We still need to make a big push at the national level to restrict access to our private information."