- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Consumers love their iPhones, Androids and BlackBerrys. With built in GPS navigation, these handy little gadgets can point the way to the nearest gas station with a low price or the highest-rated restaurant within a few blocks. Results can be personalized based on the user’s location at any given moment, a feature so handy that many never leave home without their mobile.

Under federal law, even the most basic cellphone must collect location information so that 911 services can respond appropriately. The Obama administration wants the ability to seize this data for its own purposes. Last month, the Justice Department filed a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit insisting the government had the right to gather 60 days’ worth of tracking information from a cellphone without a warrant issued on probable cause.

By claiming this detailed information is relevant to a criminal investigation, there would effectively be no limit to the state’s ability to know someone’s every move. In the case at hand, federal agents sought the travel history of certain customers of T-Mobile and MetroPCS, but a federal magistrate ruled that the government’s hunch that these individuals might be involved in crime was good enough to merit release of basic subscriber information, such as name and address, but “a higher standard of proof” had to be met before the court would compel the release of location information.

The administration appealed this decision to a district court, arguing the location information represented “third-party business records” entitled to no privacy protection whatsoever. The judge saw this as a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The most troubling aspect of the Justice Department’s pursuit of this case to the next level is that the Supreme Court has already shot down its effort to allow warrantless installation of GPS trackers on automobiles. Tracking a phone potentially reveals far more information than merely following a car, since the phone usually doesn’t stop at the parking space or garage.

Knowing where an individual goes over a two-month period paints a very revealing look at a person’s life. The data could expose a person’s friends, associates, political leanings, religious affiliations, hobbies and even vices like gambling. Such a dossier could as easily be misused to blackmail political enemies as it could be used to crack an organized crime ring.

In a free society, government is not simply entitled to this information. A neutral third party decides whether law enforcement has a real case against the person whose privacy would be violated.

Unfortunately, the administration has too often chosen to trample on the right of citizens to be free from the prying of nosy bureaucratic busybodies. President Obama’s lack of leadership on privacy is most apparent in the hands-on investigations conducted at airports by the Transportation Security Administration. If Congress doesn’t have the courage to step in and tackle this issue, the courts should shut the door once and for all on these attempts to create a surveillance state.

The Washington Times

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