Federal privacy case also about youth safety

There’s an interesting conversation going on over at CNET about cellphones as tracking devices, outdated federal privacy law, and phone owners’ privacy rights. Reporter Declan McCullagh looks at this crucial moment in the courts – a case to be argued before the Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Philadelphia tomorrow. As I read, I first thought, “Well, cops used to obtain phone records that located where suspects were when they made calls with fixed phones, as well as where the calls were made to. Now they just find out where the mobile phone was, right?” Yes, but, uh, the tracking of geolocation-enabled cellphones (which most mobiles are now), “comes in two forms,” McCullagh writes: “police obtaining retrospective data kept by mobile providers for their own billing purposes that may not be very detailed, or prospective data that reveals the minute-by-minute location of a handset or mobile device.” It’s the “prospective” part that’s new and raises even more concerns. If search-and-seizure laws aren’t updated so that police need a search warrant to obtain cellphone location data in realtime (which is what this whole discussion’s about), Big Brother really can, potentially, track you minute-by-minute now. Then I thought about youth safety. Is there a downside there? Of course not, if we’re talking about tracking a kidnapper or his/her victim. But what if a child is trying to get away from an abusive parent, the police don’t know about the abuse, and the parent calls the police saying s/he’s desperate to find a lost child? There are many what-if scenarios like that. Minors have privacy rights too. Another consideration I’m not seeing in McCullagh’s piece is prepaid “disposable” phones not attached to mobile carriers’ billing departments and data-storage servers. Will bad guys be using those a whole lot more if the privacy-rights side of this case loses? To be continued…. [Meanwhile, feel free to weigh in on any of this in comments below, via email, or in our forum at ConnectSafely.org.]


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