Cellphone Tower Data Is Not Constitutionally Protected
Recently in 2016, a 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that there was no 4th Amendment protection for cellphone tower data because it was determined that there is no expectation of privacy for the information exchanged between a cellphone and a cellphone tower when an individual is accessing that particular tower(s). The original article discussing this opinion was published by The Wall Street Journal. The opinion is not the first of its kind, and in fact, various courts throughout the United States vary on whether cellphone tower data, specifically the location data that is being transmitted when placing a phone call, is protected by the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Apparently, the Court of Appeals in this recent opinion out of Ohio compared the issue of cellphone tower data to that of a letter mailed through traditional post. They stated that the cellphone tower data was similar to the information that is placed on the outside of the letter (such as the mailing or return addresses). This means that the information on the outside of the envelope is considered revealed and exposed to the public, which goes to show there is no expectation of privacy for such information. The court went on to explain that cellphone tower data is also being exposed to the public since the individual user is providing the information freely to his or her cellphone provider. They then explained that it would not consider the cellphone tower data as business records, which would in fact diminish the expectation of privacy even more.
In the end, the court followed a similar ideal and ruling from 1979 when the U.S. Supreme Court held that phone calls made from a landline were not protected by the 4th Amendment. In that particular situation, similarly as with cellphone tower data, the individual using the landline is providing that information openly and directly to a third party, which is the phone company. Under this reasoning, the individual using the phone is not expecting privacy within the location of the landline, just as the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled with cellphone tower data.
This is a very interesting and important issue that was being discussed by the 6th Circuit and The Wall Street Journal because as technology continues its advancement in sophistication more questions will be raised as to what requires constitutional protection. Logically, it would seem that a landline phone would not be subject to an expectation of privacy, just as an individual’s home residence, address or location is not necessarily protected. The reason it’s not protected is because the very location and address is generally open for public display. This may not be true for all residences, but you see the logical perspective. Now when turning to cellphone tower data, or simple cellphone use, the ability to be anywhere at anytime is a very real possibility since the cellphone can be carried on our person and in our pocket. One would think that we as individuals would expect more privacy with such a device because of the ability to keep the device close to their person and within their pocket; however, this ability does not or may not mean that constitutional privacy is found within a situation where it is being used.
The U.S. Constitution can be very particular in its interpretation, especially in regards to the 4th Amendment and privacy interests, yet when they are deemed appropriate by the Constitution they become fully implicated within the situation. It will be interesting to see this case, and others like it, develop. Cellphone tower data is simply one of the few technological advancements that have had and will continue to have an impact on Constitutional law and our ability to maintain privacy within specific areas of our lives.
As always, never rely on this article or any information on this website or any other internet, electronic, or other website when attempting to or wanting to represent yourself in a court of law within Michigan or the United States without first seeking and obtaining advice from adequate counsel specializing within the area of law that is in question.