Uncle Sam wants your phone

Think you own your smartphone data? The Feds are trying to obtain that data directly from the wireless companies. And there may be nothing you can do to stop them.

You may have paid hundreds of dollars for that shiny new iPhone or Droid in your pocket – not to mention thousands of dollars in wireless data charges – but does it really belong to you?

That’s at the center of a handful of cases winding their way through the US court system that will have an enormous impact on the privacy of the 240 million Americans who own a mobile phone.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Julian Angwin reports, for months Google and the FBI tussled over the passcode to a phone belonging to an alleged drug dealer and pimp. The Feds demanded that Google unlock the Samsung Galaxy handset of Dante Dears, and even obtained a warrant for the information earlier this year. Google objected, saying the request was “overly broad.” (Apparently the Feds and Google ultimately settled the issue, but neither side is saying how.)

The point: Even founding members of the “Pimpin’ Hoes Daily (PhD)” gang have privacy rights. But Google is one of the rare companies that will use its attorneys in an effort to protect user privacy when the Feds come calling.

Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice has issued arguments in its attempt to retry alleged drug dealer Antoine Jones, whose conviction was overturned last January when the Supreme Court ruled that evidence obtained by placing a GPS tracker on Jones’ car violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

Specifically, the court ruled that placing a tracker on the car constituted an illegal trespass; in other words, the act of tracking Jones wasn’t the problem, it was how the Feds went about tracking him.

Now our government is trying again, notes Wired’s David Kravetz, but this time it wants to use cell phone location data as evidence. Uncle Sam’s argument: Since Jones’ location data was maintained by a third party – his wireless company – the government could legally request it directly from that company, something the Supes ruled was legal back in the Watergate era, even if the FBI didn’t obtain a probable cause warrant for that data.

The DOJ’s argument, and it’s a chilling one, boils down to this:

“A customer’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the phone company reveals to the government its own records that were never in the possession of the customer… When a cell phone user transmits a signal to a cell tower for his call to be connected, he thereby assumes the risk that the cell phone provider will create its own internal record of which of the company’s towers handles the call. Thus, it makes no difference if some users have never thought about how their cell phones work; a cell phone user can have no expectation of privacy in cell-site information.”

Translation: If a mobile company is keeping tabs on your location they own that data, not you, and they can do whatever they want with it.

This is very bad on a number of levels, both Constitutional and commercial. Think about all the services you use that request your location information (pretty much every iPhone/iPad app I’ve installed asks for this). If the cops knew you had a particular application installed – say, they happened to have a database with 12.3 million unique Apple device IDs on it – they could simply approach the app maker for your data, skipping the whole hassle of obtaining a legal warrant and notifying you of the request.

It could happen. And if our current judicial system allows this, it surely will.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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