Cell Tower Dumps – Denied

In recent years, the courts have struggled to decide whether the government needs a warrant to access records about a cell phone user’s location and in September, federal courts ruled that cell phone location data is not protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. Last month, a judge in Texas began raising questions about whether or not investigators are providing courts with enough information on technological tools that allow them to get data from all cell phones in a particular area.

Magistrate Judge Brian Owsley rejected federal requests to allow the warrantless use of “cell tower dumps” and “stingrays”, two different tools that are being used for cell phone tracking. “Cell tower dumps” are when information is received from all the cell phones in range of a given cell tower for a certain period. A “stingray” is a portable device that acts as a fake cell tower and can gather data from cell phones in close proximity.

Magistrate Judge Brian Owsley was most concerned when the agents and U.S. attorneys making the requests did not provide details on how the tools would be used to get the cell phone data. They did not seem to understand even the basics of how these devices functioned and had trouble explaining the technology.

“Without such an understanding, they cannot appreciate the constitutional implications of their requests,” Magistrate Judge Brian Owsley wrote in an order last month and added that the government was essentially asking him to allow “a very broad and invasive search affecting likely hundreds of individuals in violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

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