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The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that warrantless tracking of people's location using their cell phone signal is unconstitutional, a move that could have far-reaching consequences and suggests that the most common use of police surveillance tools called StingRays is illegal.
The StingRay, if you aren't familiar, is essentially a fake cell phone tower that is used by at least 45 branches of law enforcement in the United States to track criminal suspects (the UK uses them as well). But the way it works—as a cell tower spoofer—means that, by design, all cell phones within a certain geographical area will connect to it, meaning police are sweeping up location information about everyone nearby.
When police have access to StingRays, they use them often: In 2011, the Los Angeles Police Department used it for 340 different investigations; in Tallahassee, Fla., police used them for 250 investigations between 2007 and 2014. Most often, tracking of specific suspects is done without a warrant.
StingRays aren't at the heart of Thursday's Florida Supreme Court Decision; warrantless cell phone location tracking is, according to court justice Jorge Labarga's opinion. Nonetheless, the most common use of StingRays would fall under his decision.
"Regardless of Tracey's location on public roads, the use of his cell site location information emanating from his cell phone in order to track him in real time was a search within the purview of the Fourth Amendment for which probable cause was required," Labarga wrote.
"While a person may voluntarily convey personal information to a business or other entity for personal purposes, such disclosure cannot reasonably be considered to be disclosure for all purposes to third parties not involved in that transaction," he (Justice Labarga) wrote.
"Requiring a cell phone user to turn off the cell phone just to assure privacy from governmental intrusion that can reveal a detailed and intimate picture of the user's life places an unreasonable burden on the user to forego necessary use of his cell phone, a device now considered essential by much of the populace," he continued.
Again, this decision only counts in Florida for the time being, but it's the first time a high court has ruled, based on the US Constitution, that the practice is illegal, and it sets a strong precedent for future cases. Previously, New Jersey and Massachusetts made similar rulings using their state constitutions.