Law Enforcement Agencies Sometimes Use What Type of Data to Reconstruct a Person’s Travels?

Philipp Schaetz

November 4, 2020

One of the most common techniques to reconstruct a person’s travels is for law enforcement agencies to obtain cell-site data from cell phone service providers. Cell-site data reveals the locations of cell phone towers that a cellular device communicates with.

Cell-site data can be used to identify which cell towers were used to place and receive calls, send and receive text messages, or transmit and receive data, when a cellular device is in use. It can also be used to determine the general location of a cellular device, such as by identifying which cell towers are closest to the device, within a particular time period.

For example, someone’s cell-site data may be used to establish how the person traveled from home to work during the morning. Or, it may show that the person traveled to a residence where an alleged drug deal took place.

Do Law Enforcement Agencies Always Get a Warrant Before Obtaining Cell-Site Data?

Cell-site data is another form of information that law enforcement agencies can obtain through a court order or a warrant. To obtain a court order, law enforcement officers must apply for the order to a judge. The judge must then determine whether there is sufficient evidence to issue the order.

To obtain a warrant, law enforcement agencies must demonstrate to a judge that there is probable cause to believe that the information sought will be of help to the investigation.

Do the Police Need a Warrant to Obtain My Cell-Site Data?

The general rule is that a warrant is needed to access your cell-site data. However, there are some exceptions. For example, if the cell-site data is obtained by a law enforcement officer who is in a public place while carrying out his or her official duties, no warrant is needed to access the data.

In addition, if the cell-site data is obtained by an Internet Service Provider (ISP), or other third party, and the ISP or third party provides it to law enforcement agencies, no warrant is needed to access the data.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also ruled that cell-site data is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, without a warrant, law enforcement agencies can obtain your cell-site data from an ISP without demonstrating that they have probable cause.

What About Your Email, Email Accounts, or Email Contents?

Do law enforcement agencies need a warrant to access your email, email accounts, or email contents? The answer depends on how the law enforcement agencies obtain your email, email accounts, or email contents.

If the law enforcement agencies obtain the information through a warrant, they can access the information without your consent. If they obtain it with a subpoena, they must first demonstrate to the court that they have probable cause to believe that the information is relevant to an ongoing investigation.

If the law enforcement agencies obtain the information from an ISP or some other third party, then the ISP or third party can provide the information to law enforcement agencies without having to obtain a warrant or a subpoena. However, if the ISP or third party receives the information from a warrant or a subpoena, then the ISP or third party would have to obtain a warrant or a subpoena before providing the information to law enforcement agencies.

Do Law Enforcement Agencies Need a Warrant to Access My Cell-Site Data?

The general rule is that law enforcement agencies must obtain a warrant to access your cell-site data. However, there are some exceptions. For example, if the cell-site data is obtained by a law enforcement officer who is in a public place while carrying out his or her official duties, no warrant is needed to access the data.

In addition, if the cell-site data is obtained by an ISP or other third party, and the ISP or third party provides it to law enforcement agencies, no warrant is needed to access the data.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also ruled that cell-site data is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, without a warrant, law enforcement agencies can obtain your cell-site data from an ISP without demonstrating that they have probable cause.

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