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Can police 'follow' me by tracking my cellphone?

Wireless technology allows us to stay in touch with more ease and convenience than ever before. A smartphone about the size of a deck of cards gives you the power to make calls, text and update your social media from almost anywhere in Lansing.

One trade-off that many residents are likely unaware they are making for this service is their privacy is being eroded. The same cellphone that keeps you in constant touch with the world can be used by state and federal law enforcement to follow you -- often, without having to get a search warrant first.

Cellphones work by connecting wirelessly to the nearest cell tower within the network. Your phone registers its position with the tower every few minutes, even while you are not using it. In turn, your mobile carrier gathers this location data and holds onto it.

In part because the law has yet to catch up to the realities of modern technology, police and the FBI have a fairly easy time obtaining the court’s permission to review a person’s location data going back several months.

Sometimes, according to the ACLU, law enforcement does not even bother getting a warrant. The civil liberties organization believes that there have been thousands of cases where federal or local agencies examined cellphone location data without a warrant or the person’s knowledge. In a local example, in 2010 police in Michigan sought information about every cellphone near a planned labor protest.

From a criminal defense standpoint, many observers believe this practice violates the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The Founders enacted this amendment in large part to protect the privacy of ordinary citizens against excessive government intrusion. Having a government agent virtually watch you wherever you go, without proving to a neutral magistrate that there is a good reason to do so, would arguably be a huge invasion of privacy.

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