Privacy SOS

Watch New England cable channel NECN's fabulous report on how your smartphone has become a snitch. The ACLU of Massachusetts is working to ensure that police must get a warrant before tracking us via our mobile phones. The law as it stands does not explicitly protect us from this kind of warrantless tracking; indeed, the government argues that a simple subpoena — never seen by a judge and not requiring probable cause — suffices. Police say they need this power, but what's wrong with the standard they've been using for centuries — the warrant? What do the police have to hide?

The problem is significantly bigger than just cell phone tracking. Broadly speaking, our laws haven't kept pace with our technology. As Congressman Ed Markey said, “We need a Fourth Amendment for the 21st century wireless world.” He has circulated draft legislation to deal with this problem in Congress. We in Massachusetts are working to get privacy protections passed into law at the state level in the 2013 legislative session.

What's the big deal?

The information we disclose to our cell phone carriers is private, whether the government likes it or not. Why would it be ok for the government to get this data without a warrant when it is required to get a warrant for other personal information we disclose to others? When we talk to someone on the phone, for example, we are disclosing information to others — meaning the information isn't secret anymore. But it is still private, and that's why the police have to get a warrant.

Cell phone and other metadata is no different. That data reveals a lot about us, and we can't help but disclose it to our cell phone companies if we want to participate in our world in the 21st century. We certainly don't intend for it to be open season, available to anyone on a whim.

And it's a lot of data. NECN asked wireless carriers to disclose what kind of information they retain on their users. It published the telecom's full responses on its website.

Live in Massachusetts? Take action to protect your privacy. Urge your elected officials to support our privacy legislation in the 2013 session.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.